Beth Halstead

About Beth Halstead

Beth’s not sure whether it's her career and passion as a decorative artist that compels her to explore cultures near and far, or her exploration of foreign lands and their people that fuels up her artistic juices. Perhaps some things should remain a mystery!
www.halsteadandco.com

Exploring Thailand

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Beth Halstad hikes in the lush hills outside Chiang Mai province in northern Thailand.

Snapshot: Thailand

Leaving the pushcarts, crowds of tourists and the fast pace of Bangkok, we board a train and head north for a three-day hike outside of Chiang Mai. For a mere $25 US/Canadian, we make the 751 km journey in an air-conditioned sleeper car. To our delight, the train is faster than flying, extremely comfortable and offers picturesque views.

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The day of our trek arrives. We are bussed early in the morning to our starting point and out on the trails in no time. The views are breathtaking as we traverse up and down sloping valleys and hills. I pick up an occasional scent of lemongrass, tranquil sounds as we near rivers and the feeling of being embraced by the jungle’s lush tropical vegetation.

Our friendly guide educates us on jungle foods and is not distracted even as a large rat crosses our path. He speaks passionately about the variety of Hilltribes who have migrated to the mountainous terrain from the Asian interior over the past 100 years and successfully cultivated hillside crops to maintain their self-sufficiency. The minority groups, each with their own language, clothing and religion, reside peacefully side-by-side in a simple rural existence.

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In the evenings we are warmly welcomed into communities where the tribes prepare traditional foods on open fires and entertain us with stories told through song and dance. Although most do not speak English, we learn about their values through their unassuming lifestyle and oneness with nature.

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As I think about these sometimes challenging days of hiking and basic (hut) sleeping accommodation, my soul readily gives these experiences a 5-star rating.

To read the full article, check out Snapshot: Thailand, Issue 3 July/Aug 2011.

Weekend Escape to Puerto Rico

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Travel by Design: Puerto Rico

After multiple visits to San Juan I’ve learned that getting in sync with the locals means slowing down, even embracing the predictable tardiness and laid back attitudes. Not always easy for this multi-tasking Northerner. In my experience, the only things that move quickly in Puerto Rico are conversations and cab drivers. I suggest you fasten your seat belt for both.

Here I share a few additional photos from my most recent trip to Puerto Rico:

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To read more on Puerto Rico and Beth’s trip, check out Travel by Design Puerto Rico, Issue 2 May/June 2011.

Thailand

“I recall the occasional scent of lemongrass, the tranquil sounds as we near rivers and the feeling of being embraced by the jungle’s lush tropical vegetation.” – Beth Halstead

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Photography by Jake Williams

Arriving in Bangkok, it is clean that the colour, excitement and mystique I envisioned is alive and well in this vibrant Asian city. Bursting to experience the riches of Thailand, I check into my hotel, make a quick change into a tropical yet “temple appropriate” frock, and plunge into the fast pace of the streets.

After a long flight, the first site I have in mind is the Grand Palace with its honourable Emerald Buddha. As philosophers and avid travellers often preach, the journey is as important as the destination and the “Venice of the East “ does not disappoint. My pre-trip research suggests the Chao Phraya Express Boat is the simplest route to the Grand Palace and I welcome the chance to glide along, observing the everyday workings of canal life in Bangkok.

This waterway system was once the major form of transportation in Bangkok. This explains why the shores are a shoulder-to-shoulder series of homes, shops and pagodas. Mostly constructed of wood and metal, these buildings are painted every imaginable colour. Those sporting balconies contain lush tropical plants that spill over on all sides and errant household items such as the occasional hammock (although I never see one in use).

The traffic on the canal pales only in comparison to the chaos on the streets. Slim boats, long boats and water taxis move people about while supply boats jostle for position. Visitors and locals drift up to floating market vendors, whose flat-bottomed boats are piled high with fruits, vegetables, daily necessities and souvenirs.

The Taling Market boasts the popular floating kitchens, where mouthwatering traditional Thai dishes are available for purchase. Enthusiasts of floating shopping can start as early as 4:00 am at the Bang Khu Wiang, the same time monks arrive to receive their alms.

At Chang Pier I disembark and, after a short walk, gaze at the long white walls surrounding the Grand Palace. For almost 150 years these magnificently designed and decorated buildings (no gold leaf or attention to detail is spared) were home to the King and his court, the seat of government, the mint and the state department. Today they remain the seat of power and spiritual heart of the Kingdom of Thailand. To grasp even a fraction of the historical, political and spiritual influences, I strongly recommend coughing up the bhats (Thai currency) for a guide.

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Photography by Jake Williams

Taking up a generous corner of this complex is Wat Phra Kaew (The Temple of the Emerald Buddha). The opulence of this statue is certainly appreciated but not really a surprise given 90% of the Thai people are Buddhist. In fact, they represent the world’s largest Buddhist population. It is said that separating Thai culture from Buddhism is difficult as their art and cultural expressions hinge from their deep study of the religion, the Buddha himself and the mystical r oot faith, Hinduism.

It is not uncommon to see Thai people of all ages stop to observe a quick wai of gratitude and respect when passing spiritual houses, Buddhas, monk statues and chedis (moundlike structures containing Buddhist relics). People frequently visit temples to make offerings of lotus flowers, food, incense and even money as a form of praise, hoping God will smile kindly on them. Thailand as a whole is abundant with ornately decorated spirit houses and grand wats (temples), such as Wat Po which has more than 1,000 Buddha images.

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Photography by Jake Williams

Departing from the spiritual realm, the crowded markets, as in most exotic cities, are a must see. If you map out your route with intention it is easy to keep moving from 8:00 am until 11:00 pm as you encounter vendors as unique and bizarre as their wares. Without a doubt shouting takes first prize if you need to attract the attention of a potential client. Some play music to create a ‘spend money atmosphere’, while others wear outlandish costumes to catch the eye of passersby. Although prices start quite low, Thai people are avid sportsmen and love to barter. My advice is to roll up your sleeves and let the games begin.

Goods for sale include clothing, footwear, electronics, software, souvenirs, brand name knockoffs, furniture, bicycles, animals, local crafts and more. Whether you are looking for new or old, it’s available here. You just have to get out your bhats. The stalls that catch my attention are those that hiss and snap because the vendors are frying up crickets, beetles, and giant ants sprinkled with salt. If you have a sweet tooth, choose your fried insects dipped in chocolate. Even with the tempting chocolate option, I pass on this culinary treat.

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Photography by Jake Williams

Leaving the pushcarts, crowds of tourists and the fast pace of Bangkok, I board a train and head north for a three-day hike outside of Chiang Mai. For a mere $25 US/Canadian, we make the 751 km journey in an air-conditioned sleeper car. Delightfully, the train is faster than flying, extremely comfortable and offers picturesque views.

Coined “The Rose of the North”, Chiang Mai is surrounded by rolling hills. Those interested in architecture, dance, cooking, arts, meditation, yoga, giving or receiving the famed Thai massage or hiking and biking will find Chiang Mai an ideal destination. Over the next few days, I enjoy the city’s pace and calming energy and look forward to my upcoming hike.

The day of our trek arrives. Early in the morning, we are bussed to the starting point and on the trails in no time. I recall the occasional scent of lemongrass, the tranquil sounds as we near rivers and the feeling of being embraced by the jungle’s lush tropical vegetation. Looking back, my soul gives these sometimes challenging days of hiking and basic sleeping accommodations (reed hut) a 5-star rating.

One cannot say Thailand without thoughts of delectable cuisine. Although the main food is rice (a common Thai saying is gin khao yung, “Have you eaten rice yet?”), it is the famed hot and spicy dishes accompanying the rice that are unforgettable. Opportunities to refuel appear at every corner. I suggest stopping to eat at the plentiful and tourist friendly sit down establishments.

Two weeks and I only skim the surface of the cultural wealth, magic, diverse geography and friendly faces of exotic Thailand. From urban areas that throb with energy to laidback experiences with flora and fauna, my city and country girl are grateful to taste this exotic country.

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Photography by Jake Williams

Cultural Carryover:

1. Thai Proverb: Tham dii, dii; tham chua, dai chua.
One meaning: “do good, get good; do evil, get evil.”
Alternate translation, “if you are good to someone else, you are good to yourself.”

2. Maintain jai yen or a cool heart. Getting angry is a loss of face for everyone present. Hold your temper.

3. Often business and pleasure are mixed. Whomever extends the invitation is to pay for the meals and drinks. When it is unclear the oldest pays. Paying is viewed as an honour.

Baboons in Ethiopia

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I have always been crazy about animals; big and small. When I was a kid, every Wednesday, on her day off, my mom would take me to a local department store for a little shopping and a lunch out. On our first visit I got lost. The panic of the shop keeper and my mother was put to rest when they found me glued to the glass in the pet section where rabbits, cats, dogs and guinea pigs were displayed for sale.

Since that day, all my outings, big and small, have been dictated by this passion for animals. Most recently, I travelled to Ethiopia, knowing the Simian Mountains in the north were home to the Gelada baboons living in a very natural habitat.

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Endemic to this mountain range the baboons, which are actually large monkeys, are plentiful (an estimated 7,000) and appear quite unaffected by respectful human presence. The baboons congregate in groups up to 400 so are quite a sight to happen upon.

While I visited, the baboons remained very focused on their grazing, and allowed me (moving slowly) to position myself supine just three feet away, creating an excellent opportunity not only to photograph but also to observe their interactions. The males, almost double the size of the females and with impressive manes of hair, preside over harems of up to 50. The females, when not scratching the ground for barley or other edibles, fuss over the males combing through their hair for bugs.

Being careful not to smile or show my teeth, as this can be viewed as aggression in the animal kingdom, eye contact was made at times and felt like recognition that they knew I meant no harm. The babies are indescribably cute, no bigger than a foot in height they wrestled, tumbled over each other and pulled hand stands like little gymnasts. It took extreme facial muscle control to not smile and laugh while watching them.

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All the hours on the plane and bumpy, dusty bus rides were worth it as I laid on my belly for over two hours, drinking up this incredible opportunity, capturing their beauty with my camera and just being in their regal presence.

Read more of Beth Halstead’s feature article on Ethiopia: March/April 2011 issue.