Archive | Thailand RSS feed for this section

The Lone Ranger strikes again

4 Mar

Saturday

So here I am, on my own again.. feels kind of odd and strangely familiar too. It’s Saturday, so I thought I might go to the temple… where I found a lot of people engaged in a Buddhist ceremony. I stayed for around an hour, just enjoying the atmosphere but without the foggiest idea what was going on. Mind you, after an hour kneeling on a rush mat my legs weren’t really co-operating when I stood up – so the farang (Westerner) must have looked a little the worse for wear when he left the temple.

DSCF1770

But I’m in a hotel, on my own, not sharing a dorm, or sharing with anyone else.. very peculiar. And THIS room has a shower curtain! It’s surprising what you can get excited about! Mind you, I have to race my luggage up the stairs – luggage gets a lift, whereas the receptionist just pointed at the stairs and said ‘exercise’.

DSCF1772

Monday

The real reason that I am staying in Bangkok is to get my Chinese Visa – one of a number of visas that I have to get over the next couple of months – although many countries will either let UK citizens in without a visa (God bless them) or will arrange it on arrival, many require an upfront visa in your passport. India actually want detailed travel plans. Anyway, I haven’t got these yet simply because they would have expired by now – so I need to pick them up as I go. First stop, the Chinese Embassy, half way across Bangkok. I decide to take the SkyTrain anyway, just for the views over Bangkok. Now here, they’re wonderfully organised into queues rather than just milling round the platform.

DSCF1790

So, arrive at the embassy, take a numbered ticket as if I was at the deli counter (lots of Asia works on this system, whereas in Britain we would just form an orderly queue), fill in my form, stick a little picture on it with an old fashioned glue pot (the travel reps have stolen the Pritt Stick) and hand it over. Simples. And it saves me around 2000 baht over an agency doing it for me. That’s £40 in proper money.

On the way back, I’m passing the Marble Temple, Wat Benchamabophit – so I thought I might as well stop by. Each temple I visit has a different energy, a different ‘feel’ to it. This one feels very peaceful, and I could almost sense the peace and tranquillity from the lone monk meditating there.

DSCF1801DSCF1804DSCF1808DSCF1812DSCF1800

There’s a collection of Buddha figures here with the formal poses explained (like, telling the sea to go back in the last picture above) and some spooky lighting effects that really light the Buddha figures up – it doesn’t look like that to the naked eye.

And in the evening, it’s Pad Thai and a foot massage/neck back & shoulder massage in Soi Rambuttri – again, just on the street again. The girls giggle because I have managed to get myself so relaxed… that moment of relaxation doesn’t last when they really start twisting, poking, prodding and otherwise abusing my body. And walking on my back. And – hey, that tickles.

Tuesday

Thought I’d drop in at another temple to chill for a moment and reconnect to myself – it’s become a little bit of a tradition over here, just to kneel down in a Buddhist temple and breathe… I’m not a great meditator, but there is something about just resting in silence that really helps. Again there’s some sort of celebration going on

DSCF1833DSCF1835DSCF1836

So, a little time for sightseeing while I wait for my visa.  I had a list of things I wanted to do before I left, which included visiting the Grand Palace and Wat Arun. The Grand Palace just feels too busy, so I wander off to Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn. The route takes me through the local markets, where I pick up a couple of pairs of sunnies for around 100 baht (£2). A lot of the market is given over to trading in amulets – these talismans are worn round the neck or hung from the car rear view mirror (or, very probably, all over the place) for luck. There’s actually an Amulet market in Bangkok – I find the whole thing a bit creepy. There’s actually the thai equivalent of ‘What Amulet’ available on news stands here

imageDSCF1837DSCF1838

And then across the river to Wat Arun. I wasn’t sure what to expect here, but this has to be the best temple I have visited so far in Asia – and believe me, I have visited a lot. To start off with, it’s huge. I’m really struggling to take decent pictures of it and get it all in – you will have to judge how well I do. It’s a Khmer style prang in the middle, decorated with seashells and bits of porcelain that apparently was used as ballast by Chinese sailors.

There’s a fabulous feel to it, too.. I stop off as usual to spend a moment in quiet reflection in the main temple hall (wiharn) – there’s a monk in there who includes me in the blessing – principally by flicking water from a wooden switch that he’s holding. And I do feel strangely blessed, too.. almost as if there’s a seal of divine approval on my thoughts.

DSCF1856

Climbing the prang is one of the scariest moments of this trip though – it’s really steep, and in fact we have a few schoolgirls in tears as they come down – perhaps a 70 degree slope?

DSCF1852DSCF1881

There are amazing views across the river to the Grand Palace and Wat Pho

DSCF1884DSCF1888DSCF1889DSCF1919

There are rows of gorgeous orange robed Buddha figures, and in front of them lines of cheery and/or menacing temple guardians

DSCF1934DSCF1939

And all around the tinkling of tiny bells. Make up your own mind whether the clapper is a heart or a leaf… I’d like to think it’s a heart..

DSCF1875DSCF1868DSCF1878DSCF1920DSCF1928DSCF1929

Honestly, I really do find myself strangely affected by this temple – almost as if I will never have to visit another one. Having left and actually got on the boat, I had to go back again and just sit in the temple… lots of thoughts going through my head, that I might be able to write about some time – but it seems that over the last couple of days God has been speaking in a new way… and in some strange places. I can’t explain it – and yet there is something that’s been said in the depths of my heart.

Wednesday

A day of reflection and contemplation today – some writing, and some thinking. Deep stuff, yes, and some simple stuff too.

Thursday

Return to the Embassy! And I now have a Chinese visa. Now, it’s not for as long as I thought – but that just means I might end up visiting South Korea too. Tonight, the heavens opened, scaring the life out of the locals… some of the most vivid lightning and incredible claps of thunder I have ever heard in a city. And it seems I am the only one with a coat! Lots of very wet backpackers – and soggy food stalls. It doesn’t take long for the rain to stop, and for the street vendors to suddenly leap back out into their regular spots though

DSCF1957

Friday

And back on a bus back to Vientiane. Let’s hope the reverse trip is a bit more peaceful! I’ve loved Thailand… now it’s time to continue the adventure in Laos…

One (more) Night In Bangkok (2011 remix version)

3 Mar

And so it’s off back to Bangkok, after saying goodbye to our cheerful host, Joey. A cramped trip to the local bus depot (for those who haven’t experienced this, it’s basically a bunch of garden chairs and tables in the middle of town, where buses will eventually turn up to distribute their passengers to their final destinations). It’s a three hour minibus trip into Phuket airport, and I for one am really glad to get out of the bus – the seats seem built to Thai proportions and I’ve spent the entire trip trying not to bounce into the folk either side. At least this time I have a comfy seat – my backside is still a little sore from the bench seat on the trip to Laos.

The original plan to spend the night at Bangkok airport is made slightly more complicated by the fact that this flight doesn’t go to the International airport, but dumps us at the old airport (we suspect it’s actually the only flight still using that airport) north of town. I successfully ask for the destination in Thai (well, the taxi booking desk grins and leaps into action so something got communicated) and the taxi driver eventually gets me to where I am going – after asking directions from half a dozen assorted taxi drivers, policemen, street vendors and passers-by – but there is no room for me at the inn (well, I am two days early) – and so I find a hotel up the street. It’s vaguely reminiscent of a horror B movie, with a neon sign that keeps spluttering on and off, but it’s clean, and cool, and there’s a shower.

DSCF1826

I’m in heaven – there’s a shower! I haven’t mentioned Thai showers yet, but the entire bathroom is the shower room too – which means that special precautions have to be taken to avoid drenching your towel, your clothes – or, indeed, the toilet roll. Always assuming you have a toilet roll – that’s not a Thai concept, and the upmarket hotels have a spray system that achieves the same purpose (sorry, no, I’m not going into details. Use your imagination. And downmarket hotels just have the traditional scoop and bucket. And squat toilets too.) I feel a little sympathy for Sylvester Stallone and the seashells in ‘Demolition Man’.

Moving swiftly on, it’s out for a night on the town on the infamous Kao San road, backpacker heaven. Although I’ve been here before, at night the street is transformed, full of street food vendors selling everything you could imagine (and a few things you can’t). As well as the ubiquitous Pad Thai and mango rice, there’s deep fried scorpions and crunchy bugs on offer, along with whole battered squid. And meanwhile, the street hustlers are selling everything from sunglasses and silly hats to jewellery, frog noise makers and those blue helicopter light things that are available on every street market worldwide at the moment.

DSCF1827DSCF1831

And so, one birthday curry later (and very good it is too) (Lisa’s birthday, not mine) it’s off to the airport for her, and I can plan the next few days… which involve temples, sightseeing, visa applications and lots of iced coffee) . . .

The Man with the Golden Camera

27 Feb

(lest anyone is tempted to make any comparisons with bald Bond movie villains, this one had Christopher Lee in it. The villain you’re thinking of is Blofeld. Stop that train of thought immediately. Now, where did I put that fluffy cat?)

So, another day of touring – this time, off towards Phuket for the James Bond Island tour. The island is actually called Khao Ping Gan but since ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ featured it in 1974, a whole tourist infrastructure has grown up around it.

So, onto a bus for quite a bit of a hike towards Phuket… finally ending up at a small harbour. There are actually two lovely girls from Leicester on the bus, and it’s wonderful to hear an English accent again. We decant into a long tail boat, and set off for the island. The noise from the engine is really quite incredible – basically like having a truck’s diesel engine in your ears – but the trip is magical. The limestone karst formations that litter the Thailand landscape now rise like a giant’s fingertips from the sea, or like the sunken spine of some long dead sea creature.

On the way to James Bond Island (19)On the way to James Bond Island (24)On the way to James Bond Island (2)On the way to James Bond Island (5)

It feels, almost, as if each one of these islands looks like another – but there’s no mistaking James Bond island when we turn up there. There’s a lot of tourists, mostly doing James Bond poses (although it does now feel a little more ‘Charlie’s Angels’), or pretending to be manacled to the rocks (now that wasn’t in the film). But it’s a stunning sight – we can walk up the beach where Nick Nack greeted our hero with a bottle of champagne, see the rock face that Scaramanga hid behind to shoot the cork from the bottle, and marvel at the karst pinnacle that housed the solar array. (yes, I did a bit more movie watching homework for this trip too)

Khao Ping Gan (1)Khao Ping Gan (31)Khao Ping Gan (28)Khao Ping Gan (17)

James Bond connections aside, it really is a beautiful location – a white sand beach in a sheltered bay, with the needle rising dramatically in the background.

Khao Ping Gan (16)Khao Ping Gan (6)

Leaving the island, once the longtail driver had managed to get his boat to shore, fighting the others all trying to do the same, we stop off at the sea canoeing platform. Somewhat disappointed that this is a chauffeur canoeing experience, we hop into the inflatable canoes and set out for our tour of the caves of Tunnel Island. Most of the entrances are covered under high tide, and we do have to watch our heads when we enter each of the little inlets, created by the effect of rainwater on the limestone (there’s a long and complicated explanation on line, which I won’t bore you with!)

Tunnel Island Canoeing (35)Tunnel Island Canoeing (26)Tunnel Island Canoeing (24)Tunnel Island Canoeing (9)

We canoe in and out of caves… through sea arches… past huge rafts of mangroves… past a man selling coconuts from a boat (hold up – now THAT’S entrepreneurial.

Tunnel Island Canoeing (21)Tunnel Island Canoeing (10)Photo091Photo118

And then on to lunch at the Koh Panjee floating village – although this is actually a Muslim fishing community, most of it is now a platform of floating restaurants catering to the James Bond Island tours. It’s actually very sophisticated (for a floating restaurant) – the food is good and I wish I had brought a tuxedo. Sadly, we can’t find a casino, and leave back for land.

Koh Panyee (6)Koh Panyee (2)

Back on dry land, and with the sound of the longtail boat engine a distant echo in my ears, we set off for the Suwankuha temple. This has two main claims to fame – firstly, it’s built inside a cave. Secondly, it’s surrounded by monkeys.

Suwankuha Temple (16)Suwankuha Temple (13)Suwankuha Temple (8)Suwankuha Temple (3)

Yes, yes, the monkey is the one on the left.

The tour guide confuses me for a baboon (easy mistake to make) and attempts to feed me a banana. How we laughed. (Actually, Bell is a pretty cool tour guide, although the entire party is struggling to deal with the ‘off duty ladyboy’ look)

And then, finally, we finish the tour with a dip in a waterfall pool (‘Refreshing’ says Bell. Which is of course Thai for ‘bloody cold’)

And back to Ao Nang – just time for one last meal at the ace little street diner next door to the hotel (we’ve been testing the menu all week, and it has the BEST Pad Thai, Penang Curry, Massaman Curry, pancake rolls and shakes I’ve had so far – and for around £2 – no matter what we order, it’s impossible to get it above 190 baht per person). Ordering is by pointing, but that’s half the fun.

On “The Beach”

25 Feb

or “Tim, Tigger and Snuff go Phi Phi….” (trust me, it’s funnier when a Thai says it. It’s the silent ‘h’. No? OK, not funny then)

So, having taken a couple of days to chill and relax, it’s time to go on tour again… well, at least, to leap onto a speed boat and to visit some islands. Today, it’s Phi Phi.

So, down to the beach (lowercase, you’ll understand later) and then off to pick up some folk from beaches you can only get to by boat (very cool).

Leaving Ao Nang for PhiPhi (10)Leaving Ao Nang for PhiPhi (6)Leaving Ao Nang for PhiPhi (1)To Phi Phi (15)

First call, Bamboo Island – a stop for snorkelling with some very cool fish…

Bamboo Island (5)

(have you any idea how difficult it is to get the sea to look level when you’re bouncing up and down on a speedboat?)

The usual suspects like yellow tangs, parrotfish, boxfish and so on…more pipefish than I have ever seen in one place…sea urchins (careful not to step!). The biggest parrotfish I have ever seen, though – perhaps because they lack real predators in these waters. All fish photos brazenly stolen from other sources.

sea-urchinTrip to the Adventure Aquarium (formerly the New Jersey State Aquarium) in October 2007. Unfortunately not terribly scientific (more entertainment than educational), but still some nice displays.parrotfishtang

I spotted a cleaning station with a couple of cleaner wrasse doing their thing (couldn’t get them interested in a quick once over for me though, so I’ll have to take a shower later)

cleaner_wrasse_pic3YellowMaskAngelFishAndCleanerWrasse1

Huge shoals of little tiny silver fish…

 

And then off to Maya Bay. Now, Maya Bay is the setting for “The Beach” with Leonardo de Caprio… which, as homework, I had watched the night before. In the movie, of course, it’s a pristine wonderland inhabited by a few backpacker types – the reality is that it’s still a wonderland with the softest, fluffiest sand I have ever seen.. inhabited by a large number of speedboats, long tail boats, tourists and holidaymakers from every nation under the sun. And still, for all that, beautiful.

Maya Bay (36)Maya Bay (16)Maya Bay (8)Maya Bay (15)

We managed to leave my friend on the beach (we did go back for her in the end) after the crew counted 51 back on the boat but failed to notice there were actually 52 people on the boat originally.

Off to Pi Leh Bay for photo opportunities….

Pi Leh Bay (14)Pi Leh Bay (12)Pi Leh Bay (6)Pi Leh Bay (5)

And then on to Phi Phi Don for lunch and a lounge in the sun….

Phi Phi Don (2)

And finishing off going past Viking Cave (home of some of the best bird’s nests. For the soup.

 

Viking Cave (1)Viking Cave (4)

and then some more snorkelling at Monkey Bay.

Monkey Beach (7)Monkey Beach (6)Monkey Beach (1)sim_fish

This time, shoals of yellow and black fish – the scissortail sergeant that will eat out of your hands – they rise from the depths like a swarm of aquatic bees as we approach, waiting to be fed)… yellownosed pipefish…wonderfully multicoloured parrotfish, nibbling on the coral

parrotfish2616_o

redbreasted wrasse

And back to the beach at top speed…chances of getting a stable picture… absolutely zero!

When you get older you get a bit Krabi…

24 Feb

(actually, Ao Nang, but that’s close enough)

And so, finally, to the beach. Ao Nang is a beautiful place, and when we arrive, the locals are out on Noppharat Thara beach in force.

It’s quite a busy tourist harbour, with long tail boats (so called because the propeller is on a 2m boom behind the boat. Look it up at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Long-tail_boat if you’re interested – but basically, in keeping with lots of things around here, it’s a boat made out of bits of things that weren’t meant to be in boats (like auto engines) and the whole thing is designed about the implications of that (like, mounting the engine on top of the boat to keep it cool, and to allow it to swing round, so there’s no need for a rudder)

Ao Nang (1)Ao Nang (48)Ao Nang (18)Ao Nang (33)

Anyway, it’s quite remarkable, with sandstone karst formations rising out of the sea as if they belong in a James Bond movie (actually, that’s later in the week). At low tide it’s possible to walk to the islands (although the sand is a bit squidgy) and the tide goes out so far I am reminded of Hunstanton.

And so a couple of days of chilling and relaxing, a chance to knock back fruit smoothies and watch little tiny bubble crabs create amazing patterns in the sand as they form the sand into little balls and push them behind them (eating the detritus off the sand as they go). Sometimes, it actually looks like they have created the patterns on purpose…

imageAo Nang (34)

The tuk tuks have evolved again – now they are motorcycle and side car combinations:

Ao Nang (7)

At the moment there’s a fair on – the local pimped cars are on show, with lights, and sound systems in the trunk

image

(this isn’t one of my pictures, by the way – but it gives you an idea)

DSCF1479DSCF1481

– and the kids are playing Bingo. The street food is good, and by a simple method of waving and pointing I manage to get a decent plate of spicy glass noodle shrimp.

The proprietor of the hotel, Joey, is incredibly cheerful, and simply says that the reason why he has a hotel is ‘I do it for happy’. And he does.

And Tigger and Snuff finally get in the sea, too…

DSCF1488

And on the way back to the hotel the heavens open up.. and I feel like there’s a story in there, too….http://registereddisciple.wordpress.com/2011/02/22/do-you-know-where-youre-going/

Another Day in Paradise

23 Feb

And so the next day … off again before sunrise.  I won’t see Luang Prabang in the daylight. In a remarkable reversal of the normal pattern of events, the tuk tuk driver hands me money and asks me to buy the ticket so he can go home.

And so onto the bus. For the first time since leaving Mexico in October, we’re driving on the right hand side of the road.

Nothing in the guide books has prepared me for the beauty of the journey that unfolds for us. The bus is old, and slow, and, to be fair, speed limited by the potholes that litter even Laos’ most major highways. But that’s OK, because the scenery is absolutely stunning. It’s partly the scale of it all – the beauty seems to disappear into the distance – and partly the size – mountains that rise out of nowhere, with a new surprise round every bend. And there are certainly lots of bends on this trip, winding round the mountains.

To Vientiane (32)To Vientiane (6)

The early morning sun shines a weak light on the mountains, producing an achingly beautiful, heartstopping view, a peak rising in the distance framed by a gray-blue light.

To Vientiane (48)

We pass little settlements built in traditional style out of reeds and leaves – and yet with a satellite dish quaintly mounted on a  tree stump outside. Pigs are tethered by the side of the road, and little makeshift gardens are fashioned out of sticks anywhere something might grow.

To Vientiane (40)To Vientiane (16)

A stop by the side of the road for the toilet is, quite simply, exactly that. A brief stop for lunch, where an angel takes pity on us, who only have a small amount of Laos currency, and gives us lunch at a knock down price. I’ve lost track of exchange rates, but I think we bought two plates of curry for 28p.

Finally into Vientiane, the capital of Laos. In my head, I imagine us getting off the bus, getting on another bus bound for Bangkok, and being taken through immigration. Reality is very different.

The bus station for Bangkok is the other wide of the border, around 40km away. First we have to get to Vientiane centre. Time for a taxi with a couple of very bemused Italians. Then I manage to find an ATM that will give me money. Then it’s time for a crazy tuk tuk ride to the border. Our luggage goes on a van while we walk through, across the Friendship Bridge. And, after driving the the bus station, we have no tickets. The system has failed us.

I’m not keen on spending the night on a bus station, so I have to quickly negotiate for the last two seats on the last bus for Bangkok – by which time the ticket seller has shut up shop…Luckily, I am taken to another ticket seller, and, 900 baht worse off, we have seats on an overnight bus to Bangkok. We’re back on track, if slightly stressed now!

And now we end up on a bus ride half way across Thailand…. first of all into Bangkok.. the bus is comfortable and we’ve got front row seats allowing us to stretch out. We get water, and dinner in little boxes – including a dim sum bun with something not immediately identifiable inside. After thinking about it for a while, I decide I am hungry and eat it without identifying it.

Arriving into Bangkok, early morning, we are shaken awake and thrown off the bus (well, it felt like that) into the bustling Northern Bus Terminal. A taxi ride into town and we are at the meeting point. It’s at this point that I realise that in the Veniane panic, I have lost my bank card. So into the internet cafe and sorting it out… I’ll blog about the experience on ‘www.registereddisciple.com soon…

We’re eventually met by our guide, who leads us through Bangkok alleyways, down back streets and through shops (the short cut through the Muay Thai Boxing gym had me worried for a moment) and into the street to wait for the next bus. This one is definitely fully of backpackers on the way to Krabi and Phuket.

Off into the night. Again, the lights of Bangkok and Southern Thailand speed past in a blur… it’s fascinating to watch it all. The bus disgorges us at a little eatery in the middle of nowhere, full of little bags of Thai snacks and noodle sellers. AAnd then it dumps us, unceremoniously, in the middle of nowhere again, in a place where old coaches go to die. It’s about 5:30 am and it’s quite surreal,, surrounded by piles of old chairs. Eventually we are on a bus to Ao Nang, near Krabi, and our hotel… where I sleep for four hours. Three nights of little sleep have finally taken their toll….

Pachyderms, pummelling, pad thai and paddy fields . . .

17 Feb

And so I wave goodbye to Sukhotai, and hello to Chang Mai. The landscape unfolds behind grimy bus windows, and slowly the featureless plains of central Thailand give way to hills – or at least i think they are hills behind the grimy windows and shrouded in a haze of pollution. The fruit from the market goes down nicely with its dip of chilli, sugar and salt.

I’m pretty certain I could live in Chang Mai – although the markets are absolutely crazy and go on for a completely unreasonable length. On Saturday, there’s a Saturday Night market… and on Sunday there’s a Sunday night market. The rest of the week, there’s a night market in case you can’t do without the shopping. But there are bargains to be had – a messenger bag for 120 baht will do nicely for my journal, and at last I can replace the bracelets I left in Penang. Oops.

The streets are full of street food vendors – I can recommend the spring rolls…. and the noodles…. and the sticky rice… and pretty much everything there is, actually. I do wonder if the locals look at me as Yul Brynner returned (sans Deborah Kerr, this time).

DSCF1081

There’s a trek booked the next day, and ten eager tourists are duly delivered to the hills outside Chang Mai… and into the tender care of the mahouts and their elephants. I’ve never ridden an elephant before, and it’s quite an experience – with a 20 baht bag of bananas in one hand (for the elephant, not for me) we set off accompanied by a couple of babies too (who also want their share of bananas). While an adult can happily grab a banana using the end of it’s trunk, the babies still need to wrap their trunks round the bananas. And it’s surprising how quickly a grown elephant can go through 20 baht’s worth of bananas – but fortunately there’s the elephant equivalent of a truck stop for refuelling.  Fabulous fun, though, with the elephant (Toyota, for some reason best known to the mahout) stopping at the oddest places to reach back with his trunk for another banana.

On Elephants (1)On Elephants (18)On Elephants (8)DSCF1018

It’s a shame when the ride is over.. we leave the mahouts to kick back and relax, and the babies to stock up on milk from a 4 litre container.

DSCF1026DSCF1027

From there, it’s a walk in the jungle – although this trek has been done a few times – and a stop off at a local village. These people have come over from Burma, and although now integrating into Thailand, they still hold their own culture, language and customs.

DSCF1049DSCF1052

We cross paddy fields and soya plantations, with makeshift irrigation and lots of manual labour..

Trekking (5)Trekking (2)Trekking (1)

and arrive at Mae Wang waterfall, for a cooling swim (it’s darned cold water) before trekking on.

Mae Wang Waterfall (7)Mae Wang Waterfall (3)Mae Wang Waterfall (11)Mae Wang Waterfall (10)

And then, finally, to river rafting on bamboo rafts. It’s dry season, so it’s relaxing rather than racy, but the raft drivers conspire to make it interesting by rocking the raft, running into rocks and splashing us with the pole. The locals we pass do their bit to splash us too, and there’s some inter raft rivalry too. I’m reminded of a leisurely day out on the Cam in Cambridge.. without the Pimms and strawberries

After the rafting (2)

Sadly, no photos, apart from the souvenir one from the raft company (yep, it really is like Alton Towers here).

DSCF1130DSCF1131

Time for the sellers of souvenirs to come find us.. but my brain is buzzing away on a wicked hypnotic metaphor and story from the rafting….

Sunday night market tonight… this one is even bigger, and seems to spread right across the old city. I decide to take time out for a massage on the street corner.  An hour later, i have been pummelled, hit, pulled, poked, stretched, twisted and otherwise abused. It’s oddly relaxing… and very strange to do it in the middle of a busy market street. And at 150 baht, it’s got to be a bargain.

Drifting off to sleep is easy tonight – and I am up early, woken by the rooster outside the bedroom.

I’m on my own today, Lisa having opted for the cookery course, so I have more time to linger in the temples in the Old City.. I feel an incredible sense of peace, calm and tranquillity in each of them, which resonates with something of peace deep inside of me, growing stronger as i feel it becoming part of my purpose and destiny. I take some time out to think, and to dream today, realising that this trip has become something of a pilgrimage, and something of a learning experience too – both intellectually and at a deeper, soul level too.

The streets are unrecognisable during the day: the markets that even spread into the temple grounds have been cleared away, and the monks resume their duties. I spend an hour with a young monk from one of the monasteries discussing Buddhism, world faith, the difference between South Asia and North Asian Buddhism – and the future of Buddhism and the coming of the fifth Buddha. His English is excellent – and his depth of understanding is too. I learn loads very quickly!

DSCF1089DSCF1091Wat Phra Sing (10)Wat Phra Sing (7)Wat Chaiphrakiat (2)Wat Samphao (3)

And on to my final encounter – the opening of Java Junkie which is a great little coffee stop in the middle of town – Klaus, Ann and Stephanie make me very welcome, and the Valentine’s Day biscuit is welcome too.Java Junkie Opening

And a night at the Riverside Bar – a chance to impress the locals with a little bit of bluesy dancing (it’s all that there’s space for) to the Thai rock bands that are playing – half a dozen assorted musos crammed onto a stage, and playing a cross between The Killers and the Blacke-Eyed Peas, all with a wonderful Thai accent.

DSCF1136

It’ll be a shame to leave Chang Mai – it’s an easy town to fall in love with, with a huge energy and buzz, and a deeply spiritual heart.

Sukhotai….Return of the Chedi…

15 Feb

 

Sukhotai (39)

And so off to the bus, on a tuk tuk that doesn’t seem to be going to make it. Perhaps it’s the three of us on board. Perhaps it’s the weight of my pack. But it doesn’t sound very well…(a diagnosis which is further reinforced when it nearly stops going up hill, and finally confirmed when the driver takes a spanner to the engine after delivering us to the bus stop).

And so off to Sukhotai, another of Thailand’s ancient capitals. The landscape qhizzes past (no, really, we found a decent road) and we head north across flat and featureless landscape revealing tiny settlements and larger towns, industrial complexes and paddy fields. And yet pagodas and temples litter the landscape like forgotten toys.

Sukhotai bus station is a typically Thai bus station, full of frantic selling of food, tuk-tuk drivers wanting to take you anywhere, everywhere, and we’re grateful for the arrival of our hotel owner, who seems to have studied at the John Inman school of English. The hotel is really nice though – with lots of fish in the pond, and (tragically) lots of mosquitoes in my bedroom. It’s odd, though – there’s Tescos in Thailand, so sitting in the middle of Asia putting Tesco chillii sauce on my breakfast just seems, well, odd.

Sila Hotel (1)Sukhotai Hotel (4)

The tuk tuks here have been replaced with a new model – more like a motorbike, the driver sits behind the passengers instead. I’m thinking of writing a thesis on the development of the tuk tuk in modern Thailand – although, probably, someone else already has.

New Sukhotai (2)

The town yields its usual night time street market, selling every kind of food imaginable, and some that, frankly, I could not imagine. To continue my quest to bring you the very best in Asian signage, I bring you this glorious example (as recommended in Lonely Planet)

New Sukhotai (1)

And then there’s aerobics in the park. In Thai, of course – it’s strangely compelling to listen to.

Onto a little local bus in the morning – the old town of Sukhotai is about 14km west of the new town, and these old style buses will take you there for around 20 baht.

Sukhotai Bus (3)Sukhotai Bus (4)

The old town is a fascinating jumble of old temples, lakes and monuments – hiring a bike is the easiest way to get round, although I’m still saddle sore from riding round Ayutthaya. Oh well – at least my bike has ‘Turbo Charming’ written on the side. It must be mine then….

Turbo Charming

 

Sukhotai (25)Sukhotai (32)Sukhotai (35)Sukhotai (44)Sukhotai (49)

In some of these, you can quite clearly see the Hindu influences too . . Thailand is actually a melting pot of ancient cultures including those from Burma and Cambodia.

Sukhotai Hindu model (3)Sukhotai Hindu model (4)

We decide to bike up the hill, too – there are some temples outside the walls of the old town. We have to pay a fee to leave the town, though – the first time I have had to pay to actually LEAVE somewhere. Out in the fields are more temples, more chedi, and more Buddhas – although the climb up to one of the old temples does give beautiful views over the fields and town below. Not really best achieved in the heat of the day, so an iced coffee is in order.

Outside Sukhotai (2)Outside Sukhotai (4)

A ride round the rest of the town, and back on the bus… mission accomplished – and although these bicycle seats are much more padded, I still have a very sore rump…

… which means that the decision to take the bikes out in the morning for a ride round New Sukhotai is unfathomable – and I spend most of the ride standing up. There’s not as much cushioning on me as there used to be, you know….but there’s local colour to be found everywhere

Ride Round Sukhotai (1)Ride Round Sukhotai (2)

Ayutthaya–it’s easier to pronounce than you might think…

10 Feb

In fact, it’s pretty much pronounced ‘u-tay-ya’ with a very silent ‘ai’ at the beginning.

So, a slow, cramped, hot train journey to start with… enlivened somewhat by the ‘Monks Zone’ at the train station (not sure what happens if you sit there by accident) and the Thai equivalent of the at seat trolley service (a never ending parade of people selling everything from water to beer, satays and unidentifiable foodstuffs.

huamphong Railway Monks Section (1)DSCF0694

Eventually we get off at Ayutthaya station, after a brief attempt to get off one stop early is thwarted by the locals, who are pretty certain that I don’t want to get off at Bang-Pa-In.  We’re met by the Aytthaya version of the tuk-tuk, which has metamorphosed into a Daihatsu three wheeler with 6 seats.

DSCF0870

After a brief stop at the hotel, we are whisked off on whistlestop tour of the main sites in Aytthaya, including a very impressive reclining Buddha, and a large number of Buddha statues around the temple. I am now starting to know my prang from my wiharn and my wat from my chedi (not to mention knowing my chofah from my ubosoth) – basically, modern day Ayutthaya has been built in the wreckage of the previous capital of Siam (Thailand) after it was sacked in the war with Burma. The old temples (wats) litter the town, with every street corner turning up a new pagoda in a wild number of styles from Burmese to traditional Thai to Khmer. The town is now (and rightly so) a UNESCO heritage site.

DSCF0719DSCF0716DSCF0711DSCF0705

As well as the temples, we stopped off to say ‘hello’ to the elephants…..

DSCF0749DSCF0745

…and the tigers…

DSCF0757DSCF0759

…and uncovered this entirely appropriate Buddha resting in the roots of a bodhi tree.

DSCF0809DSCF0795DSCF0788DSCF0773DSCF0768

I’ve got to say, I have completely lost track of which temple is wat (Thai joke)

Finally, we end up in the night market – having found some food that we can identify and tried some that we can’t, it’s back to the hotel…(I think we were on vegetable tempura, fishcakes, pork satays and omelette – and whatever the Thai for ‘Foo Yung’ is (personally I don’t care – but it was brilliant). All of them seem to come with a little bag of chilli sauce. Each food purchasing transaction seems to consist of a worried vendor concerned that the food is ‘spicy’ and a wildly nodding grinning Englishman who is concerned that it might not be.

The hotel walk isn’t quite as easy as I thought, and we find ourselves lost in town with no real idea of where we are – eventually hailing a tuk tuk who takes us on a wild ride to justify his 100 baht before dropping us off around 100 yards from where we hailed him. Who cares, it’s one of the best £2 I have ever spent.

A gentle start to the morning, but it’s soon hard work on a pair of squeaky bicycles (one of which has a collapsible saddle, which could prove nasty). Tigger and Snuff are of course as keen to see the city as we are, and so take their rightful place in the basket, much to the amusement of the locals. We sail past a plethora of noodle purveyors (with some surprising colours) as well as a further supplier of shrink wrapped Buddhas, as well as little street corner shrines, and plastic coated roosters. We have no idea about the roosters. Or the zebra, which just seem spurious.

Ride round Ayutthaya (8)Ride round Ayutthaya (4)DSCF0877

After yesterday’s temple shock, we have no desire to visit another ruined temple, and so we cycle around town watching the people, the traffic, and the temples. An early coffee stop at ‘1st Cake’ turns into a second coffee stop at the same place after cycling round the island to end up outside the same supplier of caffeinated beverages.

Cycling in Thailand has its own set of dangers, including the fact that the motorcycles (of which there are a large number) also ride on the pavements – or the wrong way up the street. Every motorist ignores someone on a bicycle too.

Eventually we end up at the monument to King Naraesuan monument, where there are literally hundreds of the inexplicable cockerels –

 

DSCF0853DSCF0849

and a final beautiful pagoda built in Thai style on top of a Burmese base – inside the top of the pagoda is a tiny shrine with the perfectly reasonable request not to light incense inside…

DSCF0880DSCF0873

DSCF0863DSCF0856

And back to the hotel for a game of Uno. Next stop… Sukhotai. More temples await us….

Footnote 1 – according to our Thai guidebook, King Naresuan was the inventor of the rotary spit, as shown in the picture being held in his right hand. The cockerels pay homage to the invention of roast chicken, and apparently there is a small shrine to Naresuan in every Nandos restaurant.

Footnote 2 – not everything in this blog may be completely factual

One night in Bangkok

8 Feb

…and, apparently, the world is my oyster. Well, it’s three nights in Bangkok, but that would ruin the song reference.

So, having been joined by my friend Lisa for a few weeks, and having spent a profitable afternoon deciding just how to get my visas for onward travel sorted out (a few more nights in Bangkok, I think) we set out to discover the joys of Bangkok.

Now, the first thing to understand is transport. You could take the bus, if you knew where it went. You could take the skytrain, if you were near a sky train station. You could take a taxi, and you would actually get where you are going. Or you could take a tuk-tuk.

DSCF0662

Now, there is a certain risk with a tuk tuk. On one level, these are simple forms of transportation that are lots of fun, especially if the driver can get a bit of speed up. Some of them would rather be mobile dance clubs and have the sound system and the lights to match. Some of them raise certain concerns over what the driver has been drinking/smoking/ingesting before hand. The chief function of a tuk tuk, however, is NOT to get you where you want to go. It is to offer you an excellent deal on where you might want to go, but take you to a suit shop/jewellery arcade/travel agent on the way. Laden with rucksack, the tuk tuk driver STILL wanted me to go to a suit fitting before dropping me at the hotel.

Sunday

Woken a little earlier than expected by the banging of drums in the street outside and a large number of firecrackers going off.

We got quite an excellent tour from one tuk tuk driver (although there are certainly more buddhas in Thailand than seems strictly necessary) around the temples we hadn’t seen – and then happened on a friendly newspaper reader in one of the temples who warned us that the border with Cambodia was shut (I missed that bit of news – might be important later) and then suggested we might visit the tourist agency to book more tours, along with a very convincing explanation why. Is he in cahoots with the tuk tuk driver, who wants to take us to the same place? I don’t know, and honestly, I have given up caring. An hour at the tourist agency, and we have a plan for the next three weeks – a plan which, dear reader, I will gladly unfold for you as it unfolds for us… but no peeking! We have a small collection of envelopes with vouchers and leaflets in them, and a promise that Sammy will pick us up on Tuesday. This could be interesting.

We discovered that you can buy a shrink wrapped Buddha statue at a little shop in the street…

DSCF0516

The rest of the day has been spent wandering Bangkok’s temple landscape – banging the gongs and ringing the bells at Golden Mountain, with great views over the city….a lot of the faithful have a ‘worship bag’, the contents of which get posted into each of the slots on the top of the temple…

DSCF0526DSCF0519DSCF0541DSCF0532

The signs around the temple inform us, usefully, that the temple has been repainted with the sponsorship of a local paint company, and helpfully advise us which colours we need should we want to achieve the same effect at home.

Avoiding the demonstration outside the agriculture ministry (possibly the most laid back demonstration I have ever seen, which mostly seemed to consist of people having a picnic in the street).

Watching the catfish in the river being fed. Wild.

DSCF0558DSCF0548

Seeing the giant Buddha at Wat Inrawiharn (‘Wat’ meaning ‘temple’) – this Buddha is 32m tall, and an imposing sight, even if we didn’t notice it initially…

DSCF0571DSCF0572

Discovering the delights of Thai iced coffee and street hawker food.

And finally back to the hotel (note – real hotel, not hostel… luxury…how things have changed since Australia (Australia it’s around £20 per night for a dorm room – in Bangkok, high living can be had for £30 a night for a twin room))

DSCF0581

Monday

Setting off to see the rest of the city(!), we stop off at the Erawan Shrine, constructed in a corner of the Grand Hyatt’s grounds after a run of bad luck dogged the hotel’s construction – the miraculous change in fortune means that the shrine gets a lot of devotees.

DSCF0590DSCF0587

A brief sojourn in the city’s malls in Siam Square leaves us strangely unmoved, and we decide to close out with a visit to the Grand Palace and Wat Pho. ‘But they are shut for a ceremony’ comes the cry (followed by ‘let us take you on another tour of the city then you come back’) – we have heard this ploy too often now, and settle for a walk dodging the lawn sprayers in the park.

Wat Pho proves to be incredible (once we get there) – a huge temple complex and the biggest reclining Buddha in Thailand – at 46m long and 15m high it’s quite incredible, and seems to threaten to burst out of the building housing it. It’s impossible to get a real picture of all of it, so we have to content ourselves with snapshots of bits of it… and this quite amazing mother of pearl detailing on the Buddha’s feet.

DSCF0648DSCF0645

DSCF0657DSCF0654

We discover shrink wrapped Buddha figures – turns out these have not been recently delivered from the Buddha shop in downtown Bangkok, but are being protected against the enthusiastic painter who is refreshing the walls.

DSCF0634

And the rest of the grounds are no less astounding with pagodas a-plenty, beautiful buildings, an awful lot more Buddha figures, and stone guardians in human and animal form

DSCF0638DSCF0629DSCF0625DSCF0613DSCF0596DSCF0593

But we are too late to visit the Grand Palace – fortunately, I am coming back… but it’s increasingly difficult to remember which temples we’ve actually visited.

There is a strange and rather beautiful peace in each of the temples though – Wat Pho is a bit crazy, but it’s a wonderful experience to be able to sit amongst the faithful with their gifts of fruit, candles and carved animals, as they wave their incense sticks and bow deeply to the Buddha. For them, their faith seems deeply meaningful and a core part of their life – it is said that 95% of Thai people are practicing Buddhists.

Our tuk tuk driver initially doesn’t want to take us back to the hotel, but would rather deliver us to a boat tour of the floating market…but eventually relents and takes us instead to another bespoke suit shop – where the manager is outraged that I actually don’t intend to buy a suit (actually, if he had been more polite, I might have done, at £80 – if I could only find a way to get it home) – in pursuit of his commission in the form of a petrol voucher, our driver attempts to seduce us into visiting a jewellery store, a massage parlour and the same travel agency. Nice try.. but we are unable to be persuaded, as we have a dip in the pool on our minds.

And then an evening in Chinatown… flaming woks, brightly lit lanterns, street sellers and street hawkers – and I am pretty certain there are people selling discounted New Year products (stock up for 2012!)

DSCF0668DSCF0666

On the way home we get a little lost (as usual, so ‘lost’ is more a normal state than ‘I know where I am’ – and it’s more fun that way, as I end up exploring all sorts of places we weren’t expecting) – and our attention is drawn to a solid gold Buddah – the temple is still open at 9:30 at night, and the devotees are still praying. And it felt good to go in and hold a moment of peace, and joy, and gratitude in my heart before wandering back to the hotel..

 

DSCF0682DSCF0680

%d bloggers like this: