Oneness-Fountain-Heart is a vegetarian restaurant in Flushing, Queens run by devotees of the late spiritual leader Sri Chinmoy. Sri Chinmoy advocated for international harmony and… vegetarianism, hence the vegetarian cafes in his dedication in NYC (Annan Brahma and Cafe Panorama in Jamaica Hills, Queens) and across the country in Seattle, San Francisco and San Diego. Vegetarianism, under Sri Chinmoy’s teachings, is a means to establish purity of the mind and body. He believes that
“when we eat meat, fish and so forth, the aggressive, animal consciousness enters into us. Our nerves become agitated; we unconsciously become restless and aggressive. The mild qualities of vegetables, on the other hand, help us to establish in our inner life as well as in our outer life, the qualities of sweetness, softness, simplicity and purity.”
There are many spiritual paths that include vegetarianism in their practice as an extension of non-violence, a par for the path of spiritual progress, and/or the embrace of simplicity. Why on this very blog I have included reports on 7th Day Adventist eateries, to whom vegetarianism is a necessity and 130 year old tradition “to honor and glorify God and preserve the health of the body, mind and spirit” (source)(here); a cluster of Ital Rastafari eateries, to whom vegetarianism signifies a connection to nature (here); vegetarian, or Jai, Thai food straight from the source (here) and piggy-backed on the dairy-free Kosher (or Parve) world (here), as well as the “playing-animal-rights-videos-in-a-loop-on-a-prominently-displayed-television” type eatery, usually Asian and usually involving Supreme Masters (I’m talking about you Loving Hut). Though I respect these faiths, and all others, as an Agnostic, I’m in it for the food collaboration and accessibility. It is always a given that cities will have a Krishna eatery or a Buddhist vegetarian mock-meat dive in their international district. In a land where chicken is in all the salads, sometimes these options are a… godsend.
Getting back to my visit to Oneness-Fountain-Heart and the Sri Chinmoy Centres, who used to run a laundromat called Newness-Brightness-Happiness-Fullness (And yes Seattle, the restaurant Silence-Heart-Nest in Fremont). I had been to Oneness-Fountain-Heart once before years ago and had left with the eerie feeling that the all-male wait staff seemed far too benevolent to be normal. Putting aside those still-vivid feelings and my general suspicion of organized movements of faith aside, I focused more on the food this time around. Wanting to push to the presses my part 3 Burger Report (see previous post), I ordered their Ponderosa platter: a soy-science meat patty topped with a huge portobello mushroom that I mistook for a bun, grilled red onions, veggie bacon, tomato, lettuce and sprouts on a toasted whole grain bun with a very yummy BBQ sauce. The mash potatoes were not vegan so I had the side salad with mango-lime dressing.
Since I had no potatoes with dinner, I had enough room for dessert. They offered several vegan options, including a chocolate cake, apple tarragon sorbet and my choice below, a passion fruit pie. It was very delicious! The crust was a soft coconut-cookie base that complemented the two other layers nicely, a sweetened tofu layer and a soft, delicate and perplexingly textured tropical fruit chiffon. Perplexing because I wasn’t sure about how they got such a texture without whipped eggs! Very delicious and worth the trip back to Flushing on its own.
I’m going to keep on preaching… I plan to continue to honor the diverse faiths of the world through their cuisines as so many embrace vegetarianism, although I am quite sure the sensual delight I attain through eating is considered quite the vice…
Happiness is a day on da bike. After a hearty breakfast of my bona fide best vegan pancakes in the world, my bike bud and I hopped from Kings to Queens, a grossly under-represented borough in my New York City repertoire. Bike bud, having acquired expansive knowledge of bike hot-spots, showed me a sunnier side of the highway-laden gateway to Manhattan and Long Island (or the addends to my sum). Like the most gorgeous street in Queens, above. The towering canopies of trees block the grime and grit from 45th Street in Sunnyside. The two-story all-brick homes add to the quaintness.
After almost biking on to the Grand Central Parkway, we saw many interesting sights near the airport. One of my favorites was a small park underneath LaGuardia airport’s flight path where folks gather to marvel at these steel beasts in the sky. Men stood atop benches to spy LGA’s runway, watching the scene like a movie. I wondered if they had loved ones on the planes arriving and departing. I thought of the end of Casablanca and then how airport security has nixed romantic airport hello’s and goodbye’s. Near LaGuardia was Vaughn Aeronautics College, which teaches folks “aviation maintenance” or flying. They had some sorry looking air crafts in their parking lot.
Our destination was Buddha Bodai for dim sum, which actually translates to “a bit of heart”. What, exactly, the cautionary sign hung on the bathroom translated to, I do not know. But my goodness, Buddha Bodai’s menu is extensive… all a few veg bike riders could ask for. Vegetarian lobster, jelly fish, lamb? Oh my! If you’re confused, check out some of the full-color pictures of some of their interesting mock meat dishes.
#2: Pan-fried Turnip Cake: This was my fave. It reminded me of my days of chowing down in Thailand… congeal-y soft texture and super salty dipping sauce. Mmmm.
#3: Steamed vegetable Bun: A staple…
#4: Sweet sesame balls with hearts of red bean paste. Perfect texture and taste.
#5: Gingered Chinese broccoli (I think?) We thought to up the health factor by throwing in some greens to share but these scrumptious veggies were doused in oil and sauce. The ginger made all the different since this Buddhist vegetarian restaurant does not use garlic or onion.
#6: Sweet rice balls with coconut. These glutinous wonders were kind of like mochi yet with just a tiny center of red bean paste. This was my only choice, as I trusted my vegan chef friends’ word, but was also the dish I least enjoyed. Still quite good though! I can’t wait to return to Buddha Bodai for dim sum.
Right across from the restaurant was the Queens Botanical Garden! And since it was raining we had the place to ourselves. If it wasn’t for the landscape’s plant signage (and the wedding party), my illusion of stumbling upon this magical overgrowth happenstancely would be complete. We saw polka-dot flowers and persimmon trees. Erect pistils and soft, velvety algae. Striped leaves and rain-dropped web art. It is beautiful and free and connected to our final destination: Flushing Meadows Corona Park.
Flushing Meadows Corona Park was home to the 1939 World’s Fair. Ah, the World’s Fair. I would have loved to attend such an event but have only to be stricken to the old program book my mother had from when she went in 1964. Below is the unisphere and the New York State Pavilion, so prominent in World’s Fair art… and from the side of the Long Island Expressway.
I’m Back in Bangkok… but this time for an unprecedented 5-night stay. My flight leaves early morning Wednesday and here, in this bustling maze of tuk-tuk exhaust and street vendors, I will stay til then. I have some goals for this last hurrah, mainly to combat my fear of straying too far from my accommodations. Bangkok is a massive chunk of sinking metropolis. One that, so far, has proved hard to traverse. A big city girl myself, I think back to the days I used the same subway stop (West 4th) for all Manhattan destinations… when the idea of boarding a city bus, in all their mystery, was dismissed immediately. Bangkok looms intimidatingly like New York City used to. These next 5 days will be urban therapy and a test of my recently honed skill of acclimation. A spatial spazz, this ought to prove interesting. My sites and destinations mapped on a silly cartoonish tourist map, tonight I simply rest. With the recently released toxins of my Swedish massage swishing about my body, it’s a night of internet, laundry and strolling aimlessly.
I feared finding a cheap room during the Songkran Festival, the Thai new year, but I got a bed at the cheapest place in town (120 baht a night!) with no problem. Songkran is a festive time akin to Halloween in its good-natured street ambushes. But no shaving cream or eggs, the 3-day celebration is all about water. Water is believed to wash away bad luck. What began as a Buddhist tradition to honor elders is now an organized street celebration, complete with closures, sponsors, fines for pegging moving motorists, initiatives to stay sober, etc. Flags and decorations are all around my guesthouse’s vicinity, the ol’ Khaosan road, where the festival is celebrated with much vigor (although apparently second to Chiang Mai). I’ve already had a Super-Soaker playfully aimed in my direction at the bus station this morning and was squirt by a young woman in her vintage clothing/records store but the festival officially begins tomorrow. I look forward to this fitting end to my journey here in Southeast Asia. Within the first couple of days of the Buddhist calendar year 2552, I head back to Gregorian times. Back to America.
Last night I awoke to the pounding of the tin roofs around my guesthouse. Startled and helpless,I thought the worst. Transient looters? Back-alley bandits preying on the seclusion of my rented room? Drunken tourists? Emerging in the morning, the noisy culprit was clear. Mangoes. They were all over the place at Sam’s River Rafthouse. Arriving in the evening I saw nothing of the grounds but the many scurrying frogs and lizards navigating the terrain. In the morning I see I am right on the river: the River Kwai.
My location: Kanchanaburi, home to the Bridge of the River Kwai or Death Railway Bridge. During World War II the Japanese pushed construction of the original bridge from a predicted 5 years to 16 months in hopes to transport weapons into Burma, resulting in the death of their forced laborers: 16,000 Allied P.O.W.s and 96,000 local Asians. The British destroyed the bridge 3 years later in air raids. The new bridge that was built in its place is the central draw of this town and the many WWII memorials and museums within it. My first historical stop here was to the Art Gallery & World War II Museum on the way to the bridge.
The museum was an odd place with a random collection of goodies: stamp collections and dead animals once used as forms of currency housed within an ornate 3-tiered building covered in Buddhist murals.
The small amount of WWII artifacts were housed in a bamboo hut facing the river. Rusted and aged pieces of the destroyed bridge, weapons and warheads peered poignantly out of glass cases. War, in my experiences, has always been through glass: display cases and television screens. Seeing these pieces of history, the laminated stories of the families of those who died during the construction of the bridge brings me to a somber and reflective place.
In the front of the museum, one of the actual trains that road to Burma along with the Japanese intentions of stocking their military camps there. The museum’s only other inhabitant, a young Japanese man, snapped my picture on it. During our brief interaction, I couldn’t help but think of the timing that brought us both there at the same moment, straggly and unlikely representatives of our respective countries, the enemies we once were and tacit acknowledgement of both.
With the bridge only a few minutes away, I thought I’d join the masses I saw taking a closer look. The usual vendors and motorbike taxi herds lined the perimeter of its entrance. With a train secure in River Kwai station, visitors were safe to walk the length of the tracks on the bridge and they did so en mass, with their stationed AC mini-buses waiting strategically after the many shops. The visitors were mostly Asian at this hour.
There was something about watching families and friends excitedly smiling brightly for their snapshots on the bridge’s tracks that was unsettling. I pictured backdrops slideshowing behind them: the Grand Canyon, Egyptian Pyramids, etc. Their same joyous expressions remaining.
On the way back to my guesthouse, I spotted another small memorial. It was erected by the Japanese army in 1944 to honor those who had died constructing the bridge. Volunteers from Japan gather at the memorial annually to pay homage to the victims and hope for a peaceful future.
Mid-day I found private transportation to Wat Luangta/Mahabua Foundation, or Tiger Temple, a wild animal rescue center housed on a Buddhist monastery. The grounds hosted a wide selection of animals roaming free: wild boars/brogs, peafowl (peacocks and peahens!), deer, roosters, water buffalo, cows are the ones I spotted. My favorite were the boars. Such strange animals.
But, like the name suggests, tigers are the temple’s claim to fame, the offspring of the 8 original tigers adopted by the temple in 1999. The tigers were all raised by the resident monks so they are mostly tame (although still chained just in case… like the waiver I had to sign… just in case) and used to be touched by humans. The first tiger to arrive at the monastery had a wonderful tale of survival. Her mother killed by poachers, she was sold to a rich Bangkokian who hired a taxidermist to kill and stuff her. The cub miraculously survive the lethal injection. The cub arrived at the temple in terrible health, barely able to eat. A compassionate monk raised her and subsequently established the rescue sanctuary within the forest monastery. The temple asks us doting tourists for 300 baht admission fee as they are in the process of constructing a new home for the tigers but lack funds. Included in this fee are the numerous photo ops with the sleepy tigers, only offered to afternoon visitors as this is their nap time and the most controlled opportunity for the interaction. The process was very automated and involved being dragged by the hand to each tiger while staff snapped pictures. The experience was over very quickly. Reality only setting in at the last tiger, the biggest, whose huge tail whapped my on the leg as he stirred in his sleep. Thump!
After a good deal of time in Phuket Town, it was time to change home base. Being as far South as I’d get in Thailand, I headed North to Phang Nga Town. Phang Nga hosts a nice variety of attractions, the most famous being Khao Ping Kan, often referred to as “James Bond Island”. Again, access to the island through the beautiful Phang Nga Bay/National Park, is far more practical through a local tour booking in town. After being solicited by several friendly tour operators, many whose personalities and helpfulness earned them name drops in highly regarded guide books, I booked a day-tour for the next morning. I’d see the bay by traditional longtail boat, those colorful wooden vessels I’ve been photographing, with only 2 other travelers (an American couple).
That left the rest of the day at my disposal in Phang Nga. First order of business is always ditching the backpack at a guest house. Back to my budget for now, I chose my usual cheapest place in town, in this case Thawisuk Hotel. After a quick lunch of traditional Thai food and pineapple shake, I walked the 1.5 kms to Tapan Cave. The photocopied map of town I had added the parenthetical Heaven and Hell Cave under its name. As I walked I thought that stumbling upon another of these wacky places would be too strange, that I shouldn’t take heaven/hell cave literally. Then I saw the figures looming out of the trees, more bloody and gruesome then any of the previous Hells. Was someone trying to tell me something?
This Hell was all about genital mutilation. Let’s look at this from the back for full effect. My goodness.
Women don’t get off any easier.
These places are pretty sick. I find it so strange that before coming here I spent a good deal of time on the computer figuring out how to locate the first one I visited in Bang Saen and now they just rear their gory heads in my paths.
I spent the day in Old Sukhothai. Wandering around the lush grounds of Sukhothai Historical Park by rented bicycle, I left with my clothing a shade darker and soaked in sweat. It is very, very hot here in Sukhothai. Actually, the country’s highest temperatures are here: currently 36.2 C at 5 p.m. What the hell does that mean? About 97 F. Plus, it is summer right now in Thailand, which means the usual heat plus humidity.
Maybe it was the heat or not having a guide to pass on historical information along with the sights, but I was not in the mood for ancient ruins today, which is Sukhothai’s claim to fame. I found myself more excited about photographing the gorgeous trees that lined the greenway then the relatively small area of ancient temples housed in Old Sukhothai Historical Park. The very loud rattle of what seemed to be thousands of locusts also seemed to speed up my visit.
Compared to Ayutthaya, this historical park is unimpressive and I wound up finishing my visit in less than two-hours. Wat Mahathat was, by far, the best site and it happens to be the first sight upon leaving the ticket booth, making the rest of the journey of the area anti-climactic and a bit ho-hum. I did get some nice shots of these ruins (and some of the others) but the hazy sun from all directions blurred a lot of my shots. But, considering all this, I enjoy photographing Buddha’s face. Such a great guy.
Getting way too comfortable in Chiang Mai, it was time to move on. I headed further North to Chiang Rai via 3rd class bus along with the locals. After a few hours uphill, I was at Chiang Rai. Along the way I had devoured the my 5 large greasy spring rolls I had made earlier in the day, still in awe of how much one can accomplish in a day when all the hours are your own. Also a long the way, something I hadn’t seen in weeks: rain! The high altitude brought wet roads, the sound of slickness, the smell of the air, I realized I missed it.
To my surprise, the Chiang Rai bus station was not packed with aggressive tuk-tuk drivers attacking the disembarcking bus. I was asked rather politely if I needed a ride. Having to run to the 7-11 for some supplies, I denied the offer and had to seek a driver afterwards. Something I have never had to do before in Thailand.
I checked into a great place called Chat House. This kind of guest house is backpacker’s dream. With superfast internet access, very friendly and accommodating staff and a full restaurant with plenty of room to lounge and relax, it is hard to believe the price of 80 baht a night. They also offer trekking and tours and laundry service. My room was cozy and allowed me to catch up on the sleep lost waking a crack of dawn for full day tours the prior two evenings in Chiang Mai.
After finally getting a day to wake up naturally, I emerged from my room for a quick bite before hitting the shared shower facility.. a worthy but often icky endeavor. I ordered cornflakes with banana and soy milk, appreciating each bite and crunch. (Gosh, I miss my flax cereal.) The owner made the rounds to the tables and asked what my day’s travel plans were. The conversation was informative and ended in my hiring private transportation (the man’s brother) for the day as my sightseeing wishes were far too complicated through public transport. The price was right and he was genuinely interested in facilitating a worthwhile day in Chiang Rai, not at all a pressured sales deal.
So my golden chariot would be motorbike and the driver, this man. He was a gracious and patient driver who gave me my space at each location. The first stop was a visit to some hilltribe communities about 45 minutes outside of Chiang Rai. This activity draws in tons of eager tourists and their money, resulting in the relocation of some tribes to new grounds closer to the tourist cities and the environment of the visit to seem intrusive. Although I hate to contribute to that, it was a unique opportunity to see the daily life of these very interesting and colorful tribes people.
The fact that I wasn’t arriving with a busload made me feel a bit better. However, from the look on some of the their faces in my photographs, it is evident the villagers are not content with the constant stream of visitors. I tried to be as polite a guest as I could, asking if it is Ok to photograph and communicating thanks as clearly as possible. The sad truth is that for these villagers, visits from tourists are the main source of income. Their crafts are for sale within the village, as well as in the markets at the main cities they border. There are also many initiatives in place to increase village profit through these sales and decrease those from the production of opium.
The Akha Tribe. There is a very interesting matriarch structure to their tribe. Married women work in the fields while the men stay home and watch the children, make crafts & tools and smoke opium. I think I know some guys who’d love to be Akha men.
My next stop was Wat Rong Khun, a beautifully decorated temple of white and mirror designed by renowned artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat. Along with this breathtaking structure, the grounds also contained his paintings for sale along with a separate hall of his larger and more intricate canvas paintings (his master works). No photography was allowed within these museums but his work can be seen here, if you’re interested.
Thamptupu was a visit I threw in as we both miscalculated the ease of travel for the original two destinations. Thamptupu is a cavern of Buddhist worship and meditation. My motorbiker joined me in descending into the cave as he was interested to see the holy one within the limestone as well. It was a quick visit that may have not been worth the trek via bicycle (my original plan) as the dirt load leading to it was long and very rocky.
Getting to Houy Keaw waterfall was a strenuous ride uphill, first by bike and then by foot. Climbing up the steep and uneven incline was worth the spectacular view of the falls and the cool mist of the splashing water. The highest viewpoint also contained an area for swimming, already inhabited by 2 middle-aged Europeans and, strangely, a young Thai girl of 10 or 11. She was being tossed and thrown about in the water, much to her and the middle aged man’s glee. Strange.
It was still early after that fourth stop and we were then going to venture to a hit spring that was in the area. It turned out to be closed for cleaning which suited my waning enthusiasm. I was beat. Riding on the back of a motorbike is a full body workout. Fighting to sit straight against the wind’s velocity works the abdomen deeply. Holding the bar behind my seat contracts the delts and pecs. Sustaining a comfortable distance from my driver works the inner thighs. Phew! A Coke sounded refreshing so I had my first one in years.
After a layover in Bangkok, I headed up to Chiang Mai, the tourist epicenter of the North and gateway to hill tribe villages and treks, the Golden Triangle (more on this next week) and a variety of National Parks, including one boasting the highest peak in Thailand. Although the variety of attractions Chiang Mai has to offer me is appealing, I first look forward to having a home base for more than a measly two nights, a place packed with resources for my weary head and aching body.
Chiang Mai was just the place. The heart of the city’s layout was easy and stress-free to maneuver with a full variety of offerings within a relatively short distance. The downtown or Old City (i.e. tourist central) is within a moat, separating business geared towards travelers from those geared towards the locals. For once, the tourist offerings are more interesting than beyond the moat. With a ton of restaurants and guest houses competing for my baht, prices are very reasonable. Fresh foods, fruit juices, coffee houses, cooking classes, yoga and meditation classes, Muay Thai boxing matches, cabaret and plenty of bars: there is much to do within the city’s moat without even accounting for day trips and tours offered at every corner and guest house. Here I will feed my head, body and belly: the halfway point to heading home.
After day-long bus trips and not much in the way of physical activity (besides walking), a yoga class was certainly on my itinerary. Chiang Mai Yogasala offered relatively cheap all-level classes in the evening. The 2 hours of poses with an ambitious instructor wrung out the lifelessness each muscle from head-to-toe. I exited the studio wondering why I don’t do this more often. Yogasala was one of many yoga studios in the Old City but I’d recommend it highly for a challenging break from the tourist shuffle (quite similar to movie-theater-exit-walk).
To correspond with my agenda of rest and relaxation, I booked a room with more desirable enmities than my usual squalor. The Rendezvous Guest House offered me a balcony overlooking a gorgeous temple (Friday night monk chanting at no extra cost), a television with a few English channels, a hot shower and fridgerator. The place was immaculate by Thailand’s standards, meaning only a small parade of ants in bathroom. There was also a very cheap laundry service I took advantage off right down the block which properly laundered my fine frocks. (I’ve been hand washing my clothes since I arrived. Yes, with a washboard and tub o’ suds.)
Besides the tons of services and food offerings (see separate post) available here, there are the usual lovely Wats and monasteries. Immediately at my doorstep was Wat Phan On, a beautiful temple surrounded by tables and chairs under an umbrella of trees for contemplating the meaning of one’s life. Also within the temple was Monk’s Chat, where yo may ask to your heart’s content about monastic life. Feeling a bit shy and intimidated by the men in orange, I asked not.
Being intrigued by this sign right outside my guest house, I figured this play, offered at the auditorium of Chiang Mai’s AUA Language Center, would make for an interesting Friday night. Boarding a tuk-tuk to grab myself a ticket on the other side of town, it felt all the more home-like to have to be running errands.
Right before showtime I mingled amongst the theater folk in the foyer, scarfing down free fruit salad cups of sweetened banana, dragon fruit, apple, watermelon and pineapple, almost forgetting that the fruit wasn’t the main attraction. Between the criss-crossing talent and networking artists, I swore I wasn’t in Thailand. The attendees were mostly high-brow middle-aged Americans, even older art-farts, the GLBT community and the only African Americans I’ve seen since arriving. The diversity and energy was very NYC. The small theater filled up slowly and I spent the time fascinated by the many conversations around me that I could actually understand for a change. I missed the daily voyeurism of being within a culture I understand, in the stream of other’s lives in crowded Brooklyn.
The play consisted of 13 monologues followed by an open mic opportunity. Overall, the performance of the actors was good but the content, mostly uninspiring. There were interesting stories: one of a woman whose job was to teach gynecological med students the how-to’s of the clinical touch and another from a young woman from Myanmar escaping horrid conditions by way of the Thailand border, but many of the others were simplistic. Sitting and listening, I recognized that I embrace the That Takes Ovaries doctrine almost daily. But I was tired…and snuck out of the theater before I began to seriously consider communicating this to the crowd during the open mic session.
Quick note: I am very happy that I altered my plans to include runs to Ubon, Udon and Nong Khai. These cities have fully immersed me in daily Thai life and some very worthwhile attractions.
On my bicycle tour of Nong Khai, I visited the well-known sculpture garden of Sala Kaew Ku (a.k.a. Wat Khaek). The strange towering concrete works of art are just as strange as the story behind their construction. Laotian artist fleeing communist repression in his homeland in 1975 stumbles upon a hermit in the mountains. The hermit, a yogi-priest-shaman (Sounds like Yoda he does.) accepts him in his cave and becomes his spirirtual teacher. When the Laotian artist emerges from underground years later, he masterminds the construction of these enormouse sculptures, all of which represent the Wheel of Life based on the teachings of his spiritual guru. The circumbant and perpetual journey “begins” with “the extrordinary chance of your existantnce”, the union of your mother and father, and continue onward into childhood, adulthood, marriage, adultery, sickness and death. Unfortunately the park’s titles and signage had no English translation so I could not follow the circle in order.
I pedalled onward to Wat Po Chai, a beautifully ornate temple with monks’ quarters on the grounds. The ceiling of the Wat was particularly impressive and told the story of the temple’s centerpiece gold and bronze Buddha. Sinking in the river during transport, it was thought to be a miracle when 25 years later the Buddha floated up to the surface of the water.
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