A Riverside Walk

15 12 2012

I don’t like fire ants. I want to make that abundantly clear. But I do like Google’s satellite images. In the absence of anything resembling a good map here in Thailand, the combination of Google maps and their satellite images is wonderful. I often use that to identify something interesting I have passed by. Recently, I was taking a look at a large area of greenery that I pass on my way to work and spotted something that looked interesting on our side of the river. There, along the east bank of the Chao Praya River in Samut Prakan was what appeared to be a path through the jungle running almost on the edge of the river. Even better, it looked easy to get to.

The old ordination hall in front of the new one.

The old ordination hall in front of the new one.

Opposite the Erewan Museum, on old Sukhumvit Road, is a small street called Soi Bang Duan. And, thinking of myself as an ever-intrepid explorer, off I went dragging my wife and a friend with me. We drove all the way to the end of the street where there is a lovely temple supported by the local community. It’s called Wat Bang Duan Nok and I made use of their car park. The original ordination chapel, several hundred years old is still standing but not in the best state of repair. Last year, it was badly flooded and two companies have since helped raise the ground level and the chapel floor but there is no money for urgently needed roof repairs. The hall is protected by a trio of aggressive temple dogs but a very friendly monk did his utmost to assure me that they wouldn’t bite. I waited for my wife and our friend to return from the toilet and sent them in first as a sort of experiment. They didn’t bite and neither did the dogs.

The path seemed to be clear and well maintained.

The path seemed to be clear and well maintained.

The path I had seen was very easy to find and exactly where the satellite image showed it! As you go into the temple car park, look to your left where you will see a water gate. Walk across that and there is the path. For a short while it was easy going and well maintained. But not for long! Very soon, we were hacking our way through jungle using the inevitable stick to bang for snakes and other wee beasties we didn’t want around our ankles. We could just about make out the path but it was getting worse and, pushing through the foliage, more and more fire ants were landing on me and attacking. Not the most pleasant sensation so I whimpered loudly as a way of encouraging my companions to get them off me. Eventually, the path all but disappeared and, reluctantly, we decided it was time to turn back.

Eventually the path all but disappeared.

Eventually the path all but disappeared.

However, I had seen another possibility on Google and, asking the locals, that seemed very likely. So we walked back up the street we had driven down for almost half a kilometre and took the second raised concrete walkway on our right, just before a small shop and with a thing like a memorial to (or housing the spirit of) a dead child on the corner. The people in the shop told us that the path we had originally tried is only passable in the dry season and here we were at the end of the rainy season, trying to get through when it would be at its worst! The walkway provided lovely easy walking with plenty of shade. At a fork in the path, we bore right and were very soon walking through a huge area of nipa palm trees. The Thai name for the nipa palm is ‘jaak’ and it has many uses. The leaf can be used to wrap a local dessert called ‘khanom jaak’, they are stitched together to make roofing material, brooms are made from them, hats, baskets, fish traps and more. The fruit is also edible although I haven’t tried it.

The spirit thingy.

The spirit thingy.

We passed another small community and shortly after that the raised walkway finished, leading us on to the same path we had abandoned earlier. It was in good repair here and we walked eastwards along the river. Mostly it was just out of sight but every now and then we came across a tiny path leading to the water’s edge. Now it was just us, nature and the tankers we could hear on the river! Before long, we reached a large fenced compound blocking the path. This was the Marine Training Centre and we turned right, following a small boardwalk along the edge. At the river bank, this changed to a concrete path leading us around the perimeter of the centre and, eventually a road bridge. We crossed the bridge and followed the road, which was old Sukhumvit Soi 6.

The Chao Praya river was just to our right.

The Chao Praya river was just to our right.

A short distance along on the right is another large compound, this one belonging to the police. We wandered in and, in the far left corner by the riverside is an almost hidden gate. Walking through there, we found ourselves in the kitchen area of a large restaurant which was opportune as we were hungry. We were shown into the restaurant proper and enjoyed the air conditioning. The food wasn’t bad either. After lunch, we retrod our steps back to the car and are now planning to do it again in the dry season when we should be able to make it a circular walk.

Lovely sign in the restaurant we stumbled upon.

Lovely sign in the restaurant we stumbled upon.

 

 





Exploiting Thai Labour

4 06 2012

Have you noticed how people in a particular line of business usually know lots of other people in the same line of business? Well it’s the same here in Thailand. For example, most owners of cooking schools and instructors tend to know each other, it’s sort of a small but exclusive club. Of course, part of their authenticity is that they are owned and run by Thai people.

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Not that long ago, an American guy decided to start a Thai cooking school here and employed an instructor fairly well known within the business. Unfortunately for himself, this guy has, as long as I have known him, allowed people to walk all over him. When the American guy started the business, I am told that he knew almost nothing about Thai cooking. It seems strange to me to start a business that you know nothing about but……..However, the owner seems to be very good at marketing so soon had plenty of customers. Despite his success, he paid his instructor a pittance based on his belief that, because this is Thailand, he could always get somebody else to do it if necessary.
Last year, he approached a Thai cooking school owner/instructor (who I know rather well) via his instructor to ask her if she would do some teaching for him. She told him her hourly fees which are about average for somebody with her experience and qualifications. He immediately backed off, saying it was too expensive. That’s okay, no problem – she is far too sensible to let somebody like him exploit her.

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Last week, he asked her to meet with him to discuss some possible work. Again, no problem – he knows her fees which, for any business person with half a brain would be one of the most important bases for discussion. Once he had got her to travel into Bangkok and meet him, he offered her a pittance – 1,000 baht for eight hours work. When she all but laughed in his face, he told her in all seriousness that that is all a Thai person could expect to get paid and I wonder if he would work for that sort of money. How incredibly disrespectful of the people whose country he now lives in to have that attitude. And how disrespectful of others to waste their time and money setting up a meeting like that when (as he admitted) he had no intention of paying her price.

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On his website he misspells the name of his chief instructor, Nut. It is only three letters so shouldn’t be too difficult to get right. For the basic course, which most people going to cooking schools go for, he charges 1,500 baht for a four hour session – about average. At the meeting, he boasted that he pays Nut less than the 1,000 baht for 8 hours he was offering so that means he gets less than 500 baht. It doesn’t say on the website how many customers he will take although most schools do. One photo shows eight people receiving certificates so that suggests a take of 12,000 baht. Of which his chief instructor gets less than 500 baht. Now, is that exploitation or is it exploitation? What a cimex!

By the way, if you’d like a list of Thai cooking schools which treat their staff  with respect and dignity, I’ll be happy to oblige – just contact me via the comments.

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2011 in review

1 01 2012

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The Louvre Museum has 8.5 million visitors per year. This blog was viewed about 190,000 times in 2011. If it were an exhibit at the Louvre Museum, it would take about 8 days for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.





A Year in Bangkok – Why Are We Flooded?

16 11 2011

My first real experience of Thailand was 2004 when disaster hit in the shape of the tsunami. Moving here in 2005, I quickly became aware of the many problems in the education system. Then in 2006 there was the military coup. By 2007 I was fully aware of the rampant corruption. In 2008 the yellow shirts occupied the airports then, in 2010 we almost reached a civil war between red and yellow shirts. Now we have the floods and I have come to realise that the average Thai must be as resilient and flexible as my mother’s old handbag.

Watch out for snakes in the water.

Of course, added to the flood issue is the danger of snakes and crocodiles in the water, infection and just the sheer filth of it. Amazingly, there are even fish swimming around in it. On the English language news the other morning the newsreader said: “Residents in northern Bangkok are terrified of the large number of escaped crocodiles in the flood water. Authorities are trying to recapture them but meanwhile they have armed themselves with swords and sticks.” I’d have thought those big mouths and teeth were enough! So when are we going to enjoy some peace and a little prosperity?

The school I work at has got wet!

Loy Kratong, my favourite festival here, was cancelled in many places. That’s when people pay respect to the Goddess of the Water showing gratitude for their plentiful use of water and ask for forgiveness for the ensuing pollution. Well, there is plenty of water to be thankful for – hundreds of millions of cubic metres more of it than we want really. Because my area hasn’t yet been flooded, we still celebrated Loy Kratong. Maybe the Goddess has actually put a curse on Thailand.

Loy Kratong

Now, I don’t want to be harsh but it does seem as though Thailand has, yet again, been let down by its leaders whose main concern seems to be bringing the de facto leader back to the country without him having to face jail for his crimes. The people who desperately need help with evacuation, food, medical supplies and so on take second place to the needs of the rich industrialists who have businesses here. Misinformation is rife. There are allegations of serious corruption. For example, the government-supplied flood relief packs are allegedly seriously over-priced. Further, the two companies providing them to the government allegedly have the same telephone number. And the owner of one of those companies allegedly has the same name as a senior member of the government.

My engine is a little damp.

We have a young and totally inexperienced prime minister in charge of this country of over 60 million souls. That is the farce of this version of democracy, supported of course by the UK and US. The task she faces is monumental, one which seriously experienced politicians would struggle with. There are allegations here of serious incompetence. Allegations have been made that the reservoirs which are normally emptied to take the excessive monsoon waters remained full. I don’t know if that is true or not but you have to question why a country which receives massive rainfall every monsoon season is suddenly overwhelmed by it.

Inside a friend's house.

Then there is tourism and yet another downturn – this time caused by western governments advising their citizens not to come here. Why not? Most of the places tourists go to are nowhere near the floods. Krabi, Phuket, Koh Chang, Samui, Central Bangkok, Hua Hin, Pattaya, Chiang Mai, Kanchanaburi are all as normal and open for business. Contrary to some reports in the west, Bangkok’s international airport is NOT closed and hasn’t been closed by the floods. The chances of that happening are almost nil. So please don’t cancel your holidays, you really don’t need to.

At least the pets are dry.

We did our bit for tourism the other day and went to one of the islands for lunch. It was lovely, even though we were surrounded by water. Of course, that water was clean, a beautiful blue colour and smelt good. After lunch, we sat on a pier built by King Rama V and watched shoals of fish swimming in the water. Not a crocodile in sight!

"Hello.......anybody home? Don't worry, I'm unarmed."





A Year in Bangkok – Green Mamba!

7 11 2011

Sometimes, my brain simply fails to comprehend the stupidity of others. I, of course, never do anything stupid. But here, I’m really talking about beyond stupid. For example, a European guy living in Pattaya decided to keep a pet cobra. Can you imagine anybody with even half a brain deciding to keep a pet whose bite is lethal? Sure enough, the snake bit him and he had to go to hospital for the antidote. Even with the antidote, I understand that it is an extremely painful experience. Now that is gross stupidity but did the guy get rid of the snake? No, he continued to keep it as a pet, even allowing it the run of his apartment. I would have thought the old adage ‘once bitten twice shy’ might apply here but it became twice bitten as the guy’s decomposing body was later found in his apartment.

Green mamba striking.

Last week, we heard of somebody who decided he needed a breeding pair of green mambas. Deadly snakes for which we have no anti-venom as they are not natural to Thailand, but to a relatively small part of East Africa. Being a breeding pair, they did just that and became seventeen green mambas. Unlike the black mamba, it is relatively shy and non-aggressive but a green mamba will bite if threatened and, with no antidote, you can expect a slow and painful death.

It almost looks cute here.

Now this particular idiot’s house has flooded and the snakes have escaped. So far, one has been caught. Watch out for the other sixteen!





Floods!

31 10 2011

Okay, my ‘Year in Bangkok’ finished a few months ago but there will sometimes be something worth adding and this seems like one of those things.

Water, water everywhere!

As you may have heard, Thailand is experiencing its worst flooding for fifty years and, as I write, almost 400 people have died as a direct result of those floods. There are less obvious problems too. For instance, the rather aggressive cross-breeds that are used for their skin are escaping from the crocodile farms en masse. Snakes, like us, are keen to get to dry land and snakebite has increased hugely. Much of the water contains leeches and they are feeding off the people wading and swimming in the water, even managing to invade them internally occasionally. The flood water in many places is polluted with sewage and, in Bangkok, that polluted floodwater has now got into the mains water system. It is impossible to buy clean drinking water, supermarket shelves are stripped of produce almost the minute it arrives, smokers are having extreme difficulty buying their weed but, strategically, I have moved my small collection of single malts upstairs well away from any rising waters.

Snakes, usually rarely seen, are becoming a problem.

Another problem is that nobody can agree who is in charge. The prime minister says she is. The governor of Bangkok says he is. The local administrators say they are. The U.S president probably thinks he is. And we, the people, are getting some strangely mixed messages. “Evacuate your area immediately,” says one bigwig. “No, don’t,” says another. “He doesn’t know what he is talking about, wait until I make an announcement,” And so it goes on. Meanwhile, all we really know is that we are in the middle of a unique if dangerous situation. I have so far stayed dry despite several warnings but I don’t know what might happen to me tomorrow. Or the next day. Or the one after that. Friends have been evacuated and don’t know what might happen to their homes. Others have left the city and are renting houses or flats in other areas. No doubt, when it is all over, everybody here will have their own unique flood story.

This is how it looks inside every local Tesco store at the moment.

Yesterday, I looked after an 82 year old visitor from England prior to putting him on his midnight plane home. I live in an area with no other westerners so don’t have much chance of conversation in my own language. I also work almost entirely with Thai people so the same applies there. Usually, I relish the opportunity to natter with another native English speaker but this guy was something else. There were things I sort of had in common with him – he is the same age as my father, he was in the RAF at the same time as my father, we were living on the same RAF base at the same time in the late 60s so there was plenty of opportunity to enjoy some conversation and maybe some reminiscences. But no. This guy talked non-stop about his children, their children and their children for almost the entire 12 hours I looked after him. I drove him down to the coast for a beer as he hadn’t seen the sea while he was here and almost pushed him off the pier. I didn’t of course, my patience somehow held but it was the first time I remember ever dancing for happiness after seeing somebody off at an airport.

You never know what might escape from your local crocodile farm.





A Year in Bangkok – Sacred Ink

23 07 2011

Typical Sak Yant tattoo.

Some years ago, I went to Pattaya for a weekend. I have never seen a place where the sex industry is so ‘in your face’ and I’ve never been back to Pattaya. Like Patpong in Bangkok, the industry apparently grew from the demands of U.S. troops calling there. Apparently, Angeles City just outside a U.S. base in the Philippines is similar, again feeding the demands of the same clientele. Shortly after my visit, the then Thai Culture Minister visited Pattaya and was quoted in the newspapers as saying that she had seen no evidence of prostitution. I guess she gets around with the aid of a white stick.

It's common to see them on monks.

Prostitution is illegal here although you would never guess. I haven’t been there since before the tsunami but I understand that the sex industry on the holiday island of Phuket is now thriving. Enter the outgoing Culture Minister who, at a recent emergency meeting, ordered the Ministry’s Phuket officials to start patrolling the tourist zones of the island as something insidious is going on there which is apparently totally against Thai culture.

A simpler one.

As you can probably guess by now, there are certain things tourists do on Phuket which are a bit naughty and offensive to traditional Thais. You may not know this, but Angelina Jolie is to blame! In 2004, she was over here for some filming (Lara Croft I think) and she ‘discovered’ an already well known tattoo artist called Ajarn Noo. Interestingly, at about the same time, my wife was translating for a Scandinavian film company who were making a documentary about Thailand which included an interview with Ajarn Noo. He seemed to think it necessary to keep them waiting a long time when they arrived for the interview. I have heard from other people that this guy regularly seems to keep people waiting or, occasionally, not bother to turn up at all for appointments. And, if you are a westerner, he will apparently charge you 200,000 baht (four thousand pounds) for a Sak Yant, or temple tattoo that you can get done the traditional way in a temple for around 500 baht (ten pounds). Or so I am informed. Actually, it’s not just on Phuket – it’s all around Thailand. Thanks to that actress, traditional Thai tattoos are very fashionable in certain parts of the west now and the Culture Minister is concerned that people are getting them done on inappropriate parts of their bodies – hence patrolling the tourist areas.

Ajarn Noo

The tattoos are called Sak Yant. Sak Yant is the Thai name for sacred geometrical designs inked into the skin. Sak is the Thai word for tattoo and Yant, or Yantra as it is known elsewhere in the world, is the Thai name for a geometrical design believed to posses magical powers of protection. They can be done in ink or in sesame oil. Traditionally, women often had them done in oil because they were invisible yet still offered the same level of protection. A 17 year old boy, called Boy, was recently stabbed in Saphan Phut – not the nicest part of Bangkok – but escaped serious injury because, he said, of his Sak Yant.

Some of them take several days to do.

The Sak Yant tattoos are traditionally done by Buddhist Monks or Brahmin holy men. Each different design is believed to carry a certain protection and many people believe that when a design is inked onto your skin by a Buddhist monk you then become imbued with that protection. Some designs are meant to give the owner the power to charm a lover or get rich while others offer protection against enemies. I’m not sure what getting rich has to do with spirituality!

Ouch!

Yant tattooing is practiced in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Burma. The prayers tattooed around the Yant are written in Pali Sanskrit, the original language of the Lord Buddha, using ancient Khom or Khmer lettering. The use of magic Yantras and the sacred alphabet to write them has been a common practice with the Khmer race for thousands of years.

A monk again.

Sak Yant tattoos have a very strict application method that must be adhered to and takes many years to master at the training of Yant masters. The tattooist must concentrate very hard while inscribing the tattoo as he must silently chant a mantra that changes with each new element of the design while inscribing the ancient words. The recitation helps to pass on the magic onto the Sak Yant tattoo.

They can be beautiful.

The tattoos the ministry is so upset about are those depicting three particular religious images – the Lord Buddha, Ganesh and the cross so in reality this is about much more than Thai culture as those images are from India, India and Calvary in that order. Worse still, people are getting them on the “arm, leg, ankle and chest, places that are not suitable to the beauteous Thai culture or Thai society’ said the Minister. Hmmm………

 








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