The Bizarre Origins of Phra Upakut

Upakut wears a lotus leaf atop his head and was born from a mermaid swallowing the Buddha’s sperm. We visit his temple in Chiang Mai — and potentially save it from destruction.

Did you know that if a mermaid drinks sperm she can get pregnant? At least according to Buddhist folklore, that is! That’s how Upakut, seen in the middle here, was born

When I first read of Upakut’s bizarre origins, I was instantly drawn to him. So perhaps that’s why fate presented his temple as the first one we stumbled upon on our trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Wally and I walked across the Ping River via the Nawarat Bridge on Tha Phae Road, one stretch of the main thoroughfare that bisects Chiang Mai and leads to the East Gate of the Old City. A large attention-grabbing digital billboard stands on the east corner, and it’s  a challenge to cross the busy street — it’s worth going a bit out of your way to use a crosswalk.

Upakut was conceived when a mermaid ate some of the Buddha’s semen that came off while he washed his robes in a river.

Tha Phae Road is lined with handicraft boutiques, antique shops, banks, restaurants and hotels. Not far from this intersection, we encountered our first temple, Wat Upakut. The temple was built in 1300 and predates the former ancient capital.

Upakut pops up in many of the temples in Chiang Mai. Here he is at the base of the chedi at Wat Lok Molee. Make a game of seeing if you can spot him at the Buddhist temples you visit

Phra Upakut is an important figure in Burma, Northern Thailand and Laos. He is a benevolent deity who protects against all evils and physical harm and is an auspicious attractor of wealth.

There are many different stories regarding his origin. According to Sanskrit legend, he was the son of a perfumer and one of the early adherents of the Buddha. Before the Buddha entered nirvana, he asked Pra Upakut to remain alive until becoming Maitreya, the second coming of the Buddha.

With his lotus cap, alms bowl and upturned smiling face, there’s just something Duke found so appealing about Phra Upakut, seen here at Wat Sang Kaew

Thai Buddhists believe that Upakut is still alive to this day, residing in the middle of the Great Ocean, with a lotus leaf on his head. On the ninth full moon of the year, he roams the streets of Chiang Mai as a monk seeking alms. The first devotee to make an offering will be blessed with good fortune.

 

Under the Sea — and also on Fire

The most colorful story, and my personal favorite, claims that Upakut was the son of Buddha and his mother was a mermaid. He is also known as Bua Khem, whose name means “Needle-Sharp Lotus,” referring to the stem that appears like a point atop the floppy lotus leaf upon his head. According to this version, he was conceived when a mermaid ate some of the Buddha’s semen that came off while he washed his robes in a river.

This unusual offering at Wat Upakut had caught fire — and Wally ran off to tell the monks and save the day

In the wat complex, we meandered to the whitewashed chedi located adjacent to the monks’ living quarters. An offering of a pig’s head and feet sat alongside a black plastic laundry basket with cling-wrapped fruit. Wally was mesmerized by the strange setup, as was I — until I focused and realized that a votive candle had caught the basket on fire and the plastic was half-melted.

“I don’t think that’s supposed to be burning,” I said, and Wally came out of his daze and yelled,“I’m going to see if I can find a monk to put it out!” and dashed off.

After trying to pantomime flames and a melting basket (the monks looked at him like he was crazy), eventually one followed Wally over to the chedi. Not long after, they had found a hose and put out the fire.

Here are some pictures of Wat Upakut, the temple dedicated to him:

My Patron Saint

I purchased a statuette of Upakut, which a monk carefully wrapped and packaged for us. He excitedly told us of the upcoming Phi Ta Khon, the Festival of Ghosts, where an invocation of Upakut takes place at the temple in the wee hours of the morning. Both our eyes lit up as we asked the monk to tell us when this was happening. He seemed bewildered by our question, smiled and placed the small box with Upakut into my hands. We later learned that the festival does not take place until the end of June.

I quickly adopted Upakut as my patron saint, pointing out his likeness at the different temples in Chiang Mai. There’s something comforting in the cross-legged figure with an upturned head, eating from his alms bowl with a serene smile on his face.

Wally couldn’t seem to remember his name and jokingly referred to him as Ipecac, a syrup used to make a child vomit after swallowing poison. Whenever he did so, I tried my best not to smile. –Duke


Wat Upakut

164-166 Tha Phae Rd.

Tambon Chang Moi

Amphoe Mueang Chiang Mai, Thailand


Makkha: A True Spa Experience in Chiang Mai, Thailand

The aromatherapy massage at this delightful day spa is a treat for your senses.

Awaiting our aromatherapy massages in Makkha’s gorgeous lobby

Awaiting our aromatherapy massages in Makkha’s gorgeous lobby

For the second largest city in Thailand, Chiang Mai is decidedly laidback — especially when compared to the frenetic pace of its capital Bangkok. But it’s still nice to escape an itinerary packed with temples and daytrips, which is exactly what Duke and I did when we visited Makkha Health & Spa, tucked down one of the Old City’s narrow side streets.

 

Beer, the delightful receptionist at Makkha

Beer, the delightful receptionist at Makkha

We were welcomed to the spa by the lovely Beer, who immediately made us feel at home, which is fitting as Makkha occupies a 50-year-old traditional Lanna-style home with wood-paneled walls. Soft light glows through intricate latticework, surrounded by polished dark teak.

Beer brought over cups of bael tea, made from dried slices of the thick-skinned spherical fruit, also known as wood apple. The tea has a distinct, smoky aroma with a hint of sourness and has been used for centuries as an Ayurvedic digestive tonic. It reminded me of chai, Duke of matcha (though I’d trust Duke’s palate more than mine). These were accompanied by a tightly coiled cold towel, which we’re never 100% clear what to do with, so we rub our hands and forearms and usually do a quick cooling scrub to the back of our necks.

So beloved is the bael tree that a folktale exists in the sacred Hindu text the Garuda Purana about a hunter on the night of Shivarathri, an annual festival celebrating Lord Shiva, the blue-skinned deity. The story goes that the man climbed a bael tree while waiting to hunt animals that had come to quench their thirst at a nearby pond. Also beneath the tree was a Shiva lingam, and as he waited, the hunter absentmindedly plucked some leaves, which dropped onto the linga. Through this unconscious act, he had worshipped Shiva and attained moksha, a concept similar to nirvana.

The rooms at Makkha are soothingly neutral — letting the massage experience come to the forefront of your senses

The rooms at Makkha are soothingly neutral — letting the massage experience come to the forefront of your senses

We had opted for the two-hour body scrub and aromatherapy massage. We were led to our respective treatment rooms, instructed to take a quick shower and asked to change into the mesh underwear the spa provided. The shampoo, from a Thai company called Wan Waan, is essential oil-based and doesn’t lather (read: chemical-free). I had never experienced a shampoo like this before and really enjoyed it — plus, no conditioner necessary! In fact, we liked it so much we purchased a bottle of the lavender shampoo to take home.

When the therapist returned to the room, she began with the scrub, sloughing off the grime that accumulates during travel. The first targets are your legs and feet — excellent for weary travelers who have been walking almost nonstop for days.

Somehow she seemed to keep both hands moving over me, but switched from scrubbing salts to oil without pause. Maybe she was magic. The scrub does a great job of exfoliation, leaving you feeling rejuvenated. It reminded Duke of a slightly less intense, much more pleasant-smelling hammam scrub.

The Wan Waan essential oil-based products the spa uses are available for purchase

The Wan Waan essential oil-based products the spa uses are available for purchase

Aromatherapy Massage: Heaven Scent

Beer had mentioned that Makkha’s signature scent is jasmine, which I selected for my aromatherapy massage. Its warm, floral scent filled the room, making it easy for me to imagine myself in a tropical garden. Thinking of its mosquito-repellent properties, Duke chose citronella. Lavender, rose and orange cinnamon are also available.

It began with a deep tissue massage through a sheet, a traditional Thai technique. She then proceeded to climb up onto the table, straddling me, and used her hands, forearms and elbows to knead out my knots.

I like a strong massage to work through my knots and tension. I’m glad I didn’t check “extra strong,” though. These women have powerful hands. You can request a gentle, more relaxing rubdown if you prefer. Really, though, there’s something so wonderful having a masseuse knead your muscles until they go from as taut as a pulled string to relaxed and reinvigorated. When it gets sort of painful — no pain, no gain, as they say — I focus on the music.

Makkha Health & Spa’s lobby

Makkha Health & Spa’s lobby

After our massage, Duke and I were served sticky rice with mango, refreshed and ready to face the afternoon.

Forget the crowded outdoor market massages and treat yourself to the warm and welcoming Makkha Health & Spa. It’s the perfect way to relax and recharge before or after an adventure. –Wally


Makkha Health & Spa

38/1 Soi Ratchamanka 8 Phra Sing Amphoe Mueang

Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand


Flight of the Gibbon: A Zipline Chiang Mai Adventure

6 reasons why you should make ziplining through the rainforest part of your Northern Thailand vacation.

Duke and Wally on one of the two double ziplines at Flight of the Gibbon

Duke and Wally on one of the two double ziplines at Flight of the Gibbon

Diesel, Wally, Mr. O and Duke still feeling the rush from their ziplining excursion

Diesel, Wally, Mr. O and Duke still feeling the rush from their ziplining excursion

When we got back from our trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand, one of the first things people asked was, “What was your favorite part?”

There are so many to choose from — my monkey mind buzzes through dazzling, bejewelled Buddhist temples to getting up close and personal with rescued elephants. But one adventure  races to the top, so to speak: ziplining through the jungle at Flight of the Gibbon.

Yes, it’s as intense as it sounds. The ride was so long I had time to panic…and then calm down.

Making it all the more memorable is the fact that the morning we were there happened to be my birthday.

Here are six reasons why you should choose Flight of the Gibbon as a part of your Chiang Mai itinerary.

 

Flight of the Gibbons will pick you up and transport you to the jungle

Flight of the Gibbons will pick you up and transport you to the jungle

1. A driver picks you up right at your hotel.

They recommended the early morning time slot, as the rainforest tends to be cooler and the gibbons more active.

The downside is that it was too early for breakfast at our hotel. When you’re used to a hearty meal to start your day, as we had become accustomed, it’s jarring to skip any sort of sustenance — not to mention our caffeine fix!

We recommend making sure you’ve got something in your belly before your pickup.

Duke pointed out a pair of engraved buffalo horns in front of our seats in the van with rather angry-looking rats carved onto them. “They just look that way because they haven’t had a cup of coffee,” I grumbled.

The ride takes about an hour and half to the village of Mae Kampong.

Duke and Wally are all geared up and ready to hit the jungle course! (The harnesses are a bit snug in the crotch region, FYI.)

Duke and Wally are all geared up and ready to hit the jungle course! (The harnesses are a bit snug in the crotch region, FYI.)

They’ll hook you up with harnesses and helmets

They’ll hook you up with harnesses and helmets

2. Safety is their number-one priority.

We’ve done ziplines and treetop obstacle courses where you’re responsible for hooking yourself in. There’s a fail-safe where the device locks to assure at least one clamp is connected to the wire.

What’s so great about Flight of the Gibbon is that you don’t have to worry about any of that. At every station, there’s an attendant (they call them sky rangers) at either end. One sets you up, straps you in and gives you a push, and the other reminds you to put your feet up and helps catch you, stopping your momentum, at the end of the zipline.

“We want our customers to have fun and be safe, but safety is our first priority,” said Diesel, one of the staff.

 

3. The sky rangers are hilarious.

As an added bonus, the guys who work there are so goofy, they really set the tone for an enjoyable excursion, allaying any initial fears you may have.

I get vertigo, though there’s something about being strapped into a harness and wire that allows me to actually stand on narrow wooden platforms high above the ground. Maybe it's just that I love the thrill of ziplining so much I don’t allow myself to succumb to vertigo.

At one of the first stations, though, the platform jiggled and I started to panic a bit. But then Diesel came zooming across, doing stunts, his legs on the wire above him.

“I think he’s part gibbon,” I told Duke.

I quickly let go of any fear and gave into the pleasure.

And it wasn’t just Diesel who could have a second career moonlighting as a comedian. At a resting spot, a few groups converged, and we heard another ranger repeatedly calling a British guy Harry Potter. (At one point he even said the levitation spell: Wingardium leviosa!) And when a bright metallic blue beetle buzzed by, he broke into a refrain of the Beatles’ “Let It Be.”

A family of gibbons, including this mother and child, swing in the branches high above you

A family of gibbons, including this mother and child, swing in the branches high above you

4. You’ll meet a family of gibbons.

Duke has a thing for primates, and after watching a National Geographic special on Thailand called The Living Edens, he became obsessed with gibbons.

At one point, you do a little hiking. And just when we were getting a bit tired, Diesel called out, “You’re going too fast for me! Let’s take a five-minute rest.”

A roly-poly rolls up into a ball — and became ammunition for a prank amongst the sky rangers 

A roly-poly rolls up into a ball — and became ammunition for a prank amongst the sky rangers 

He took the opportunity to teach us a bit about the flora and fauna of the rainforest. He spotted a roly-poly bug, and when he picked it up, it curled into a tight armored ball. Diesel palmed it and kept trying to get other sky rangers to shake his hand and get a surprise bug as part of the deal. Like I said, a real kidder.

Up a hill, you head off to see a group of trees where a family of gibbons resides. There’s one female, with light fur, and three dark-furred males.

Diesel explained the difference between a gibbon and a monkey: Gibbons don’t have tails. Their long limbs are what allow them to swing from treetop to treetop.

Duke is also fond of their distinctive “whoop whoop” call, which we heard in full force later in the morning.

5. One of the ziplines is half a mile long!

At 800 meters, it’s the longest and fastest of the bunch. And, yes, it’s as intense as it sounds. The ride was so long I had time to panic…and then calm down.

See that glow on our faces? That’s the post-ziplining bliss

See that glow on our faces? That’s the post-ziplining bliss

Wally is giddy — ziplining through the jungle was a fab way to spend his birthday!

Wally is giddy — ziplining through the jungle was a fab way to spend his birthday!

6. It’s the thrill of a lifetime.

There are 30 stations, the majority of which are ziplines — with the highest one almost 100 feet up! 

A map of the 30 stations you’ll work your way through at Flight of the Gibbon

A map of the 30 stations you’ll work your way through at Flight of the Gibbon

Whee! Duke rappels at one of the stations

Whee! Duke rappels at one of the stations

If you’ve never been ziplining, it's high time you tried. If you have, then you probably understand the rush of adrenaline that comes when you soar through the treetops. It’s the closest to flying I’ll ever get. –Wally

Rosa Bonheur, a Friendly Watering Hole in Parc des Buttes Chaumont

One of our favorite bars in Paris, France goes from family-friendly to gay dance party in the course of a day. Plus: the recipe for its signature cocktail!

The charming Rosa Bonheur bar at Buttes Chaumont in Paris, France

The charming Rosa Bonheur bar at Buttes Chaumont in Paris, France

After exploring the hilly parkscape of Buttes Chaumont, our friend and Parisian resident Kent, Wally and I arrived at the “Log Cabin,” which is the congenial and charming wood-beamed pavilion Rosa Bonheur.

The artist Rosa Bonheur has a delightful bar named for her in Parc des Buttes Chaumont in Paris

The artist Rosa Bonheur has a delightful bar named for her in Parc des Buttes Chaumont in Paris

The bar was named after Rosa Bonheur, a successful 19th century animalière (painter of animals) known for her artistic realism. Beatrix Potter she was not: Bonheur was a nonconformist and a celebrated feminist who earned a living as an artist, managed her own property, wore trousers, hunted and smoked.

Bonheur painted lifelike depictions of animals

Bonheur painted lifelike depictions of animals

Lions and horses were among Bonheur’s favorite subjects

Lions and horses were among Bonheur’s favorite subjects

Insider’s Tip: If you want to visit Rosa Bonheur, arrive before 4 p.m., as a fence is put up then and you will have to wait in line to enter.
Later in her life, Bonheur took to wearing trousers and became a feminist icon

Later in her life, Bonheur took to wearing trousers and became a feminist icon

Bonheur bought an estate near the Forest of Fontainebleau and settled there with her lifelong companion, Nathalie Micas (and, after Micas’ death, American painter Anna Klumpke), and her menagerie of animals. She died in 1899 at the age of 77.

 

We grab a bite to eat at Rosa Bonheur — before it turns into a gay dance club

We grab a bite to eat at Rosa Bonheur — before it turns into a gay dance club

The bar is mellow and family-friendly on weekend days

The bar is mellow and family-friendly on weekend days

Cabin Fever

The laidback crowd features a mix of Parisian fashionistas and hip families earlier in the day, giving over predominantly to gay men as evening approaches.

Inside is a full bar and a food counter serving Mediterranean-style tapas. “Round Here” by the Counting Crows played. A little girl plopped herself down at the long table where we sat and began coloring in her book.

After an hour or so, as the afternoon wore into evening, the communal tables were pushed back, families disappeared, and it became a buzzing dance hall. The dance mix began with Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop,” followed by Brandy and Monica’s “The Boy Is Mine.”

Later in the evening, I observed a couple of flannel-clad and unshaven “lumber gays,” one of whom was animalistically lapping the side of the other’s face.

The whimsical bar at Rosa Bonheur, where you can order tapas and the signature cocktail

The whimsical bar at Rosa Bonheur, where you can order tapas and the signature cocktail

Our drunken friend Michael sized up the crowd with one of his hilarious comments: “There’s a fat man, a gay man and another fat man, who’s probably gay. They all do blow in the bathroom and throw up.”

Wally and Duke in Buttes Chaumont, down the hill from Rosa Bonheur

Wally and Duke in Buttes Chaumont, down the hill from Rosa Bonheur

Insider’s Tip: If you want to visit Rosa Bonheur, arrive before 4 p.m., as a fence is put up then and you will have to wait in line to enter.

One of the signature cocktails we enjoyed was a refreshing elixir made with Lillet Blanc, grapefruit juice and ginger beer called the Rosa Summer. You can also order a chilled bottle of the Rosa Bonheur Rosé, so you don’t have to go back to to the bar as often.

We’ve recreated an ode to this at home, and you can easily make a pitcher of this to serve at your next soirée.

The Rosa Summer, the perfect summer cocktail

The Rosa Summer, the perfect summer cocktail

Rosa Summer

Ingredients

  • ¾ ounce Lillet Blanc
  • ½ ounce grapefruit juice
  • ½ ounce ginger beer

 

Preparation

Fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Add all ingredients except for the ginger beer. Shake vigorously for about 10 seconds.

Strain into a cocktail glass and top with a splash of ginger beer.

Garnish with a sprig of mint.

Enough Rosa Summers and you’ll be jumping for joy like Wally and Kent

Enough Rosa Summers and you’ll be jumping for joy like Wally and Kent

Kirsten and Jennifer sit on a bench with interesting graffiti outside the bar

Kirsten and Jennifer sit on a bench with interesting graffiti outside the bar


Rosa Bonheur
2 Allèe de la Cascade
Paris, France

The Monsters of “Supernatural,” Season 2, Episodes 1-3

In which we’re visited by the Grim Reaper, the original vampire baddie Vlad the Impaler and the Hindu shapeshifter rakshasa. Plus, we play with a Ouija board and learn how to make Abramelin Oil.

What’s a Halloween party without a Ouija board? It’s the best time to talk with the dead

We had a phase in college when we’d whip out the Ouija board and try to talk to the spirits we were sure roamed our dorm. A group of my friends was sitting around the board when I walked in one night. Nothing was happening.

I took a seat — and suddenly the planchette started darting around, spelling out a story of a young girl who had drowned.

Vlad is said to have invited a large group to dinner, had them stabbed and then impaled their still-twitching bodies.

Of course everyone thought I was nudging it along, so they had me sit the next round out. The planchette didn’t budge.

“See?” one of them said. “He was totally pushing it.”

“I’ll tell you what,” I replied. “I’ll go back in, but I won’t touch it.” And I left my fingers hovering an inch or so above the planchette. It started darting around again. Everyone freaked out — and my connection to the spiritual realm was undisputed.
 

A reaper reveals itself

S2E1: “In My Time of Dying”

Monster: Reaper

Where it’s from: All over the world

Description: The reapers of Supernatural can alter perceptions. So this one appears to Dean as a pretty girl since he didn’t like her natural (spectral, freakyass) form.
Typically, the Grim Reaper is depicted as a skeleton wearing a black hooded robe, often carrying a scythe.

We covered reapers in a previous Supernatural roundup.

The ep also mentions fetches. These creatures from English and Irish folklore look just like you, but the time you see them makes all the difference. If you see your double in the morning, good news! You’re going to have a nice long life. See a fetch at night, and you’re soon to be a goner.

Queen Elizabeth I of England was shocked to find a corpse lying on her bed. Upon closer inspection, she saw that the body was identical to her own. She died shortly thereafter.

Queen Elizabeth saw a fetch lying on her bed — and she died not long after

What it does: What do you think the personification of death does? It kills you, duh.

If you’d like to communicate with someone who’s died, do like Sam and break out the Ouija board (oh, I’m sorry, I mean the Mystical Talking Board).

Norman Rockwell painted a scene of a couple using a Ouija board for a cover of The Saturday Evening Post

Norman Rockwell painted a scene of a couple using a Ouija board for a cover of The Saturday Evening Post

The Ouija board debuted in 1891, and for $1.50 you could have the opportunity to answer questions “about the past, present and future with marvelous accuracy,” according to an ad at the time.

Victorians were obsessed with spiritualism and occultism.

Victorians were kind of obsessed with spiritualism and trying to speak with the dead

Communicating with the dead was common — it wasn’t seen as bizarre or weird,” explains Robert Murch, who has researched the history of Ouija boards.

How to defeat it: You can’t kill death, silly.

The fellas mention a couple of items they learn are used to summon a demon. Oil of Abramelin is on the list. It’s a hoodoo formula named for its inclusion in a medieval grimoire called The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage, written by a man with the unfortunate appellation Abraham of Worms. He was a 15th century Jewish Kabbalist who adapted from the Jewish Holy Oil of the Tanakh. Moses whipped up a batch in the Bible’s Book of Exodus.

Abramelin the Mage. I’m sure he’s slathered in his namesake oil

Abramelin the Mage. I’m sure he’s slathered in his namesake oil

Old Wormy said that the oil is a part of rituals that involve “the gifts of flight, treasure-finding and invisibility, as well as the power to cast effective love spells.”

The sex-crazed ceremonial magician Aleister Crowley believed Abramelin Oil “consecrates everything that is touched with it.”

There’s a lot of talk about variations on the recipe, some of which resulted from a French dude’s mistranslation. Here’s one that seems legit (and not overly archaic).


Abramelin Oil

  • 4 parts cinnamon bark quills, reduced to powder
  • 2 parts myrrh resin, finely ground
  • 1 part calamus chopped root, reduced to powder
  • half of the foregoing total weight olive oil


The mixture is macerated for one month, then decanted and bottled for use, producing a fragrant oil suitable for anointing the body. It may be applied liberally, after the manner of traditional Jewish holy oils, such as the one that was poured on Aaron’s head until it ran down his beard. 

Daddy Winchester also wanted acacia. And though he had lied about the reason he wanted those ingredients, acacia is more likely to be used for protection than for summoning a demon. The bush has become a symbol of renewal, strength and purity, as well as immortality due to its evergreen nature, according to Building Beautiful Souls. It was common in Hebrew tradition to plant an acacia at the head of a person’s grave. The instructions for Noah’s Ark were written on acacia wood. And in Tibet, acacia incense wards off evil spirits.

The only way you could really beat death is to make a swap — a life for a life. John sacrifices himself to get the reaper off Dean’s back.

 

The Hindu demon rakshasha is known for tearing people apart

S2E2: “Everybody Loves a Clown”

Monster: Rakshasa, a Hindu monster

Where it’s from: India

Description: These demons can shapeshift into any animal or monster they wish. Sculptors were told to carve them with a “terrifying appearance, complete with fearful side tusks, ugly eyes, curling awkward brows, and carrying a variety of horrible weapons.”

In the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, Hanuman, the monkey god, enters a town full of rakshasas:

“Some of them disgusted the eye, while some were beautiful to look upon. Some had long arms and frightful shapes; some were very fat and some were very lean; some were mere dwarfs and some were prodigiously tall. Some had only one eye and others only one ear. Some had monstrous bellies, hanging breasts, long projecting teeth and crooked thighs; whilst others were exceedingly beautiful to behold and clothed in great splendour. Some had two legs, some three legs, and some four legs. Some had the heads of serpents, some the heads of donkeys, some the heads of horses and some the heads of elephants.”

What it does: Well, they devour people. And sleep on beds full of insects.

Ravana, the 10-headed King of Rakshasas kidnapped the lovely Sita in the Hindu epic the Ramayana

Rakshasas are ruled by their 10-headed king, Ravana, arguably the main villain in the Ramayana. “He was possibly a wonderful leader,” writes Vampires.com. “He was also a murdering rapist who ate people.”

Ravana makes an appearance shaking a mountain on a carving in a temple in the Angkor complex in Cambodia.

We probably don’t even want to know what this rakshasa is up to

Rakshasas are notorious for disturbing sacrifices, desecrating graves, harassing priests, possessing human beings and so on,” according to the New World Encyclopedia.

Rakshasas can shapeshift, enjoy devouring people and always fade away at the start of a new day

How to defeat it: A rakshasa’s power grows in the evening, and they’re at their strongest during the dark of a new moon. But they disappear with the rising of the sun.

The rakshasa page from the AD&D Monster Manual

On the show, they must be invited in, like some vampire legends.

The Brothers Winchester kill the rakshasa with a dagger made of pure brass.

If you play D&D, here are the stats for a rakshasa. Not only can you fight them, you play a rakshasa character!

They don’t give out medals for dungeon masters extraordinaire…but if they did, my friend Mike would receive one. I asked him what he thought about rakshasas in the world of Dungeons & Dragons.

“Rakshasas are one of my fave monsters!” he said. “They focus on stealth and deception, they possess both powerful magical abilities and immunities, and they can more than hold their own in physical combat. If you’re looking for a big bad for a story arc, rakshasas are the perfect masterminds.”

Wally has always secretly wanted to be a vampire

Wally has always secretly wanted to be a vampire

S2E3: “Bloodlust”

Monster: Vampire

Description: You all know what vampires look like. For more background, we first covered vampires on Supernatural in this post.

What it does: Here’s where we get into moral ambiguity: What exactly makes something a monster? Are vampires inherently evil? What about the ones in this brood who don’t hurt humans but instead drink cow blood? (Does it matter that they do so mostly so there aren’t missing people that will lead hunters to them?) Discuss amongst yourselves.

Vlad Tepes, a Romanian prince from the 1400s, became the infamous Dracula

As for our modern vampire folklore, many trace it back to the man who became Dracula: Vlad III, known as Dracul (Drăculea in old Romanian). He also earned the name Vlad Tepes (which translates to “the Impaler”). That gives you an idea of his favorite hobby.

Born in 1431, Vlad was the prince of Wallachia in what is now Romania. He might not have been the monster we’ve all been taught to believe.

“His preferred method of execution, impalement, wasn’t just a sadistic way to get rid of his opponents; it was also a good way to scare them away,” Florin Curta, a professor of medieval history at the University of Florida, told Live Science.

Vlad the Impaler is said to have enjoyed dining amidst his eccentric décor (bodies impaled upon stakes)

Vlad the Impaler is said to have enjoyed dining amidst his eccentric décor (bodies impaled upon stakes)

His habit of impaling Ottoman invaders was a form of psychological warfare used to level the playing field with an army much larger than his own. It doesn’t quite explain why he used that horrific means of death on Saxon merchants and local nobles he feared would question his authority. (He’s said to have invited a large group to dinner, had them stabbed and then impaled their still-twitching bodies.)

Some say his cruelty went even further. “He would impale women for nothing, his reason being they weren’t working hard enough. Some say he took sexual pleasure from this. He even impaled the children and the elderly because to him, they were useless,” according to The Good, the Bad and the Monstrous.

Apparently, it wasn’t the only way Dracula punished his enemies, according to the website Vlad the Impaler. He also was fond of “cutting of limbs, blinding, strangulation, burning, cutting off noses and ears, mutilation of sexual organs, scalping, skinning, exposure to the elements or to wild animals and boiling alive.”

Are vampires inherently evil? Would you slay one if it only dined on animal blood?

There’s evidence that Vlad would insert the spike through his victims’ rectums and angle it to avoid hitting the vital organs so the person would live as long as possible.

One of the myths surrounding Dracula is that he drank the blood of his enemies. Turns out the original source, a German poem, actually says he really just liked to wash his hands in the blood of his enemies before he ate dinner. Bon appétit!

How to defeat it: If you’re in danger, cut its friggin’ head off. –Wally

He was possibly a wonderful leader.
He was also a murdering rapist who ate people.

The Secrets of Parc des Buttes Chaumont

What to do in Paris? Visit this off-the-beaten-path park. It’s lovely now but had a gruesome origin.

Parc des Buttes Chaumont isn’t at the top of tourists’ itineraries, but it’s a great natural break from the heart of the city

Parc des Buttes Chaumont isn’t at the top of tourists’ itineraries, but it’s a great natural break from the heart of the city

On a sunny Sunday afternoon, our friends Michael and Kent took us to one of their favorite spots in Paris: Parc des Buttes Chaumont, located in the 19th arrondissement. We took the Métro to the Botzaris Station and walked until we arrived at the park.

Michael and a couple friends who also happened to be visiting Paris, Jennifer and Kirsten, went off in search of the guinguette (defined in the 1750 Dictionnaire de la langue français, as a “small cabaret in the suburbs and the surrounds of Paris, where craftsmen drink in the summer and on Sundays and on Festival day”). It’s called Rosa Bonheur, but Michael refers to it as the “Log Cabin.”

After the French Revolution, the tract of land became a refuse dump, a place for processing horse carcasses and a depository for sewage.
A historic postcard of the Temple of Sybille, the folly in Buttes Chaumont

A historic postcard of the Temple of Sybille, the folly in Buttes Chaumont

Kent, Wally and I decided to wander the idyllic and hilly park. It’s hard to believe, but the site, which loosely translates to “Bald Mountain,” took its name from the once-barren land, which, because of the chemical composition of its soil, used to be almost free of vegetation.

Wally and Duke in the folly at Buttes Chaumont, a little-known park in Paris

Wally and Duke in the folly at Buttes Chaumont, a little-known park in Paris

This horrific structure, known as a gibbet, displayed hanged corpses on the site of what is now Parc des Buttes Chamont

This horrific structure, known as a gibbet, displayed hanged corpses on the site of what is now Parc des Buttes Chamont

Park Life

Before the 19th century, it was considered just outside the city limits and near the Gibbet of Montfaucon, the main gallows of the kings of France. The natural elevation made it well suited to displaying the bodies of hanged criminals in a multi-tiered gibbet, a scaffold of sorts, from the 13th century until 1760.

After the French Revolution, the tract of land became a refuse dump, a place for processing horse carcasses and a depository for sewage. Another part of the acreage was a former gypsum and limestone quarry.

Emperor Louis-Napoléon III envisioned a bucolic public park with meandering paths, water features and cliffs. Though it was hardly an ideal location for such a park, Buttes Chaumont was the very spot on which Georges-Eugène Haussmann, who was chosen by Napoleon III to carry out his vision, commissioned landscape architect and civil engineer Jean-Charles Alphand to construct.

Alphand reported that “the site spread infectious emanations not only to the neighboring areas, but, following the direction of the wind, over the entire city.”

Despite this, work commenced in 1864, and the park made its debut during the 1867 Exposition Universelle.

The Greek temple, or folly, at Buttes Chaumont affords a fantastic view of Montmartre, topped by Sacré Coeur cathedral

The Greek temple, or folly, at Buttes Chaumont affords a fantastic view of Montmartre, topped by Sacré Coeur cathedral

Kent, who lives in Paris, took us on a tour of the park

Kent, who lives in Paris, took us on a tour of the park

Even though Kent and Wally are joking around, there are some precarious perches in Buttes Chaumont — be careful!

Even though Kent and Wally are joking around, there are some precarious perches in Buttes Chaumont — be careful!

Wally in the folly at Buttes Chaumont

Wally in the folly at Buttes Chaumont

We took a trail, crossing the Pont des Suicidés, or Suicide Bridge (at one point, it was a popular spot to off yourself), to reach the neo-Greek folly known as the Temple of Sybille. Perched atop a limestone cliff, it was inspired by the Temple of Vesta in Tivoli, Italy. From its vantage point, we could see the geometry of Paris laid out before us, with Sacré-Cœur Basilica glittering in the distance. –Duke

1, rue de Botzari
Paris, France

The site spread infectious emanations not only to the neighboring areas, but, following the direction of the wind, over the entire city.
— Jean-Charles Alphand, creator of Buttes Chaumont

Père Lachaise Cemetery: A Historical and Pictorial Tour

Once an undesirable place to be buried, the Paris cemetery has lured many dead celebrities, starting with Moliere, Jean de la Fontaine, and Abelard and Heloise.

A day spent wandering a cemetery as cool as Père Lachaise sure makes Wally happy

A day spent wandering a cemetery as cool as Père Lachaise sure makes Wally happy

Père Lachaise is the most popular cemetery in the world — and Duke can see why

Père Lachaise is the most popular cemetery in the world — and Duke can see why

Now reported as the most-visited cemetery in the world, Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, France, was not so when it opened in 1804. Established on the site of a former Jesuit retreat, it was originally considered too far from the city limits to be a desirable place to spend eternity.

In addition to location, the land where it stood had not yet been blessed by the Church, thus deterring Roman Catholics from burying their relatives here. In fact, the cemetery contained only 13 graves in its first year.

The citizens of Paris began clamoring to be buried among the famous folk.

Headstones of the Dead and Famous

Because death is also a business, the administrators needed to find a way to attract the citizens of Paris to want to be buried there. With great fanfare, they devised a plan: They arranged the transfer of the remains of Jean de la Fontaine, famous for his Fables, and Molière, who wrote comedic plays, including Tartuffe and The Misanthrope. The campaign showed results, and in 1817, the remains of the legendary lovers Abélard and Hélöise were also transferred there. Again, the strategy proved successful, as the citizens of Paris began clamoring to be buried among these famous folk.

For a list of some of the most famous “residents” of Père Lachaise and how to make a game of honoring them, read our previous post.

The columbarium and cremation house were built in 1894 and designed by Jean Camille Formigé in a Neo-Byzantine style.

Vandalism is rampant throughout this immense space. Old family crypts have been pried open, their interior windows of stained glass broken or altogether missing.

The most moving memorials to me were those dedicated to the Jews deported to Nazi death camps.

Père Lachaise is filled with remarkable works of art and has become a hotspot for the dead and living alike. –Duke

Travel Advice: 4 Essential Tips for Planning a Trip

Our vacation planning process involves a lot of research, blog surfing — and negotiation.

Travel guides, maps, blogs and photo books are all part of our travel planning process

Travel guides, maps, blogs and photo books are all part of our travel planning process

As Wally and I count down the days to embark on our next adventure, I wanted to share a glimpse of our planning process that occurs during the months prior. The anticipation is part of the fun of travel.

Southeast Asia had me at hello after our first trip abroad eight years ago. I’m super-excited for our trip to the Northern Thai city of Chiang Mai.

 

1. Do research. A whole lot of it.

How do we plan our trips? It typically involves reading through numerous travel blogs, an assortment of travel guides, books on traditional architecture, religion and history, and digging into Pinterest and Instagram. This process consumes countless hours, transforming our itinerary as we add and adjust based on our discoveries. Our interests include history, culture, heritage, arts and shopping.

Typically, I create broad brushstrokes first, which we then whittle down together. I use Google docs so we can both share and contribute. It’s important for each of us to express our desires and agree upon what kind of vacation we want to experience.

 

2. Be flexible.

While it's important to have a game plan, be sure you leave yourself free to make unexpected discoveries.

For our recent trip planning, the hotel we originally agreed upon was not available for a few of the days we would be there, so we found another place. We made the reservation about four months ago.

 

3. Make a list. Or two.

When it comes to plotting our itineraries, Wally has a system which he refers to as A-list and B-list. A-list activities are top priority, and B-list less so. For example, on Instagram I saw that someone we follow, @alexblock, visited a restaurant in Chiang Mai called As Café. It has a 3D printer that will make a pancake in the likeness of your face. When I told Wally about it, he said, “Definite B-list,” but I'd argue that it's a strong B+ for sure. Who wouldn't want to exclaim, “I’m gonna eat my face?”

What type of things made it onto our A-list, you ask? Ziplining through the jungle. An elephant sanctuary. And temples. Lots and lots of temples.

There really are a seemingly endless amount of things to see and experience in and around the second largest city in Thailand. Pretty soon we had a short list(s) and were able to come to an agreement on prioritization.

 

4. Don't try to pack too much in.

Originally we debated tacking on a few days in Bagan, Myanmar. I'll admit I'm slightly obsessed since having read that it’s one of interior designer Vicente Wolf's favorite travel destinations. But after some thoughtful consideration and gentle affirmation from Alana Morgan of the indispensable blog Paper Planes, we knew we had made the right decision to stay the entire time in Chiang Mai.

Why rush things? It’ll be fun to really get to know a place, without rushing off to another country. –Duke

Père Lachaise Cemetery Scavenger Hunt

What you should leave on the graves of Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, Marcel Proust, Georges Méliès and others. Finding them is part of the fun.

Think of Père Lachaise Cemetery as a large park — that just so happens to have a bunch of dead people buried in it

Think of Père Lachaise Cemetery as a large park — that just so happens to have a bunch of dead people buried in it

On the first day of class, a lot of my college professors would have everyone state an interesting fact about themselves. My go-to response was, “I like to hang out in cemeteries.”

I thought it was just odd enough to make me seem mysterious and it revealed my quirky nature.

At one point, the oversized testicles were removed, with the rumor being that the cemetery manager used them as paperweights.

It’s also true. I’m a sucker for cemeteries, whether they’re small graveyards tucked next to a church, with moldering tombstones or grand affairs with elaborate statues like the Cimiterio Monumentale I stumbled upon in Milan, Italy.

I’m a cemetery aficionado, a connoisseur, if you will. And hands down, there’s one cemetery that beats out all competitors: Père Lachaise in Paris, France.

Jim Morrison’s grave is barricaded off. Apparently his fans can be a bit unruly and destructive to other tombs

Jim Morrison’s grave is barricaded off. Apparently his fans can be a bit unruly and destructive to other tombs

It’s no surprise that Père Lachaise is said to be the most visited cemetery in the world. Situated in Paris’ 20th arrondissement, the necropolis is named for Father François d’Aix de La Chaise, who heard the many confessions of King Louis XIV.

There are 70,000-some graves packed into the 109 acres, many of them of famous individuals of all stripes. It became a scavenger hunt of sorts to use the map to try to locate particular graves — and once you find them, you realize many have a certain way people pay tribute to the ghosts of these great men and women.  

 

The iconic shot from Mélièrs’ A Trip to the Moon

The iconic shot from Mélièrs’ A Trip to the Moon

WHO: Georges Mélièrs, 1861-1938

FAMOUS FOR: Helping create the birth of cinema

WHAT TO LEAVE: Film canisters or something photography-related

Our first stop was at Méliers’ grave. He’s famous for A Trip to the Moon — you might have seen the iconic image of a rockship that lands in the eye of the Man in the Moon. The gorgeous and magical movie Hugo is a worthy tribute to Mélièrs.

This was our first hint at how difficult finding particular graves can be. We were sure we were in the right spot, but just couldn’t find Mélièrs’ tombstone. A nice older gentleman must have known what we were looking for — he came over and pointed down into a mass of tombstones. I spoke with him briefly in French. We realized the grave was a couple of rows deep on a narrow side path.

“There goes the stereotype of French people being rude,” Duke said. 

We still couldn’t find a way down into the depths, but then we saw a couple coming up the hill from the main road, like the entrance to a secret passage.

Leave something photo- or film-related on Mélièrs’ grave — or just a note

Leave something photo- or film-related on Mélièrs’ grave — or just a note

Wally’s note reads, “Thanks for all the magic!”

Wally’s note reads, “Thanks for all the magic!”

One never knows when some graveyard dirt will come in handy

One never knows when some graveyard dirt will come in handy

Oscar Wilde, the dandy himself

Oscar Wilde, the dandy himself

WHO: Oscar Wilde, 1854-1900

FAMOUS FOR: Writer (The Portrait of Dorian Gray, The Importance of Being Earnest), witticist, gay pioneer

WHAT TO LEAVE: A lipstick kiss

Wilde had some great lines. My personal favorite has always been: “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”

His grave is one of the more interesting ones at Père Lachaise. Part of the Art Deco stone monolith is an angular angel, with massive wings and anatomically correct privates. At one point, the oversized testicles were removed, with the rumor being that the cemetery manager used them as paperweights.

In the 1990s, a new tradition started: People would leave lipstick kisses on Wilde’s grave. It’s a sweet idea, and one I think Wilde himself would approve of. But the cemetery staff kept cleaning them off, which was causing irreparable damage.

So, in 2011, a glass wall was erected around the grave. So you can leave a kiss for Wilde — without damaging his tomb.

I didn’t happen to have any lipstick, so I wrote him a nice note and left that instead.

Even with a glass barrier, people still find ways to kiss Wilde’s grave. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind

Even with a glass barrier, people still find ways to kiss Wilde’s grave. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind

Wally is wild about Wilde

Wally is wild about Wilde

Édith Piaf

Édith Piaf

WHO: Édith Piaf, 1915-1963

FAMOUS FOR: Songstress (“La Vie en Rose”)

WHAT TO LEAVE: Roses

You’ll have to hunt for a grave marked, “Famille Gassion-Piaf.” I didn’t have any flowers, so I tried to draw one on a note I left on her tomb.

Not Wally’s best work, but he wanted to offer Piaf a flower of sorts

Not Wally’s best work, but he wanted to offer Piaf a flower of sorts

Marcel Proust

Marcel Proust

WHO: Marcel Proust, 1871-1922

FAMOUS FOR: Writer (In Search of Lost Time)

WHAT TO LEAVE: Métro ticket stubs

I couldn’t find anything about why people decided to start leaving subway ticket stubs. I could make up some bullshit about the subway trains symbolizing the passage of time — but it was probably the only thing a tourist had in their pocket, others followed suit, and a tradition was born.

These were the main graves we left tributes on. There are plenty of other celebrities’ graves to hunt down at Père Lachaise. Look over the list and decide which ones you’d like to honor. When in doubt, bring a pad of paper and write a note about how the person touched your life. Or start your own tradition.

If you’ve never spent an afternoon wandering through a cemetery, Père Lachaise is a great place to start. You’re sure to be converted. It might sound creepy, but it’s really not. Maybe it even helps us, in some small way, accept the inevitability of death. –Wally

Coconut Macaroons Recipe

A cookie recipe that’s sure to brighten your day.

Delectable toasted coconut macaroons, like the ones we had after our hamman in Fès, Morocco

Springtime weather in Chicago can be wildly unpredictable at best. Sure, you made it through winter, but March often throws a combination of wind, rain and, more than occasionally, snow our way. Days can vary from sunny and warm to cold and rainy up until the end of May, before summer officially arrives.

Recently, on one of these blustery and chilly early spring days, I was humming “Holiday” by Madonna and daydreaming about a faraway rooftop bar with vibrant pink bougainvillea in bloom and the delicious, bite-size, toasty, golden coconut macaroons with soft chewy centers we were served at Palais Amani in Fès, Morocco.

This simple recipe, adapted from Ina Garten, is bound to make your day better. It always reminds me of the ones we enjoyed on a warm and sunny afternoon on our spa day in the historic medina. A perfect combination of toasted coconut, meringue-fluffy egg whites and sweetened condensed milk yield a dense and slightly tangy interior.

These confections are not to be confused with macarons, the meringue-based French cookie filled with buttercream, ganache or fruit curd.

 

Makes: 24 to 30 cookies

Active Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 40 minutes

It doesn’t take much to whip up a batch of these little balls of sunshine

It doesn’t take much to whip up a batch of these little balls of sunshine

Ingredients

  • 14 ounces sweetened flaked coconut
  • 14 ounces sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 2 extra-large egg whites at room temperature
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt

 

Preparation

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Combine the coconut, condensed milk and vanilla in a large bowl.

Whip the egg whites and salt on high speed in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment until they make medium-firm peaks.

Carefully fold the egg whites into the coconut mixture.

Drop the batter onto sheet pans lined with parchment paper using either a 1¾-inch-diameter ice cream scoop or 2 teaspoons.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until golden brown.

 

Go ahead — you deserve a little to time to relax, and if you fancy a cup of tea, might I suggest chamomile? –Duke