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.

 

 

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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."





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 – Another Old Market

3 07 2011

Who would like a nice fresh rat?

Yesterday, I took a drive along Lat Krabang Road to the point where Samut Prakan, the province I live in, meets Chachoengsao. Soon after passing Suvarnabhumi Airport, the buildings of the city start to disappear and the road becomes lined with rice fields, many of which are populated by storks at this time of year. Along the roadside are stalls selling barbecued rat, freshly caught in the rice fields. To get here from town is easy, you just take Sukhumvit Soi 77 (On Nut Road) and keep going – it will eventually become Lat Krabang Road.

Looking towards Bangkok. Samut Prakan province is on the left and Chachoengsao is on the right.

I came out here to find another old market I had heard about and it is a real gem. It is called Khlong Suan Roi Pee market and is well signed from the road shortly before you get to the Bang Pakong River. This hundred year old market runs along one bank of the Prawet Burirom canal and, interestingly, straddles two provinces: Samut Prakan and Chachoengsao.

Saphan Aswanij - this wooden bridge is over a hundred years old.

Having passed on the barbecued rats, and it being lunch time, I was ready for a bite to eat when I got here. The choice of food is almost overwhelming and all of it is cooked right there in front of you. I settled for a Vietnamese thing, kind of a stuffed omelet I suppose. It was chock-full of bean sprouts, nuts, pickled radish, bean curd and goodness knows what else served with lightly pickled shallots and cucumber on the side. I have never come across this before and it was delicious.

Lots of wonderful fresh cooked food.

I then spent a couple of hours wandering around both the market and the canal side community here. Everybody was friendly and several people tried to chat with me in English. This market and community goes back to the reign of King Rama the fifth and there are times when you can almost imagine yourself back in those days. It has survived several fires – a remarkable feat as all of the buildings seem to be made of wood and the wooden bridge (Saphan Aswanij) which links the two provinces is apparently the original.

Beautiful old teak shop houses.

In the past, this market was linked to Bangkok by boat and there was a regular passenger service between Chachoengsao city and Bangkok, terminating in Pratunam. In this small area, you will see ethnic Chinese, Thai Buddhists and Thai Muslims all living peacefully together. If you get outside the immediate market area, you will find not only temples and mosques but even a Chinese canteen offering free vegan food to hungry souls in need.

Who will buy my fish?

If you get the chance, go there. You won’t regret it but make it a weekend as I understand that a lot of the stalls and shops are closed during the week. Keep scrolling down for more photos.

Traditional transport.

 

Lovely canal side community.

 

My lunch.

 

Most of the stalls are old wooden (usually teak) shop houses.

 

Another great old bridge.

 

Looking along the backs of the shop houses.





A Year in Bangkok – Wat Tham Yai Prik

28 05 2011

Welcome!

In the late sixties, the Venerable Prasit Thavaro had a vision. An old lady called Prik, who was King Chulalongkorn’s (Rama V) nanny, came to the master and invited him to a cave on Koh Si Chang. In 1970, he went there to meditate and he subsequently spent almost ten years meditating there alone.

A monk's room.

In 1983, he went on a pilgrimage to India and Nepal to visit Lumpini Park in Nepal, where the Buddha was born; Bodhgaya in India, where the Buddha became enlightened; Deer Park in Sarnath, India where the Buddha proclaimed his first sermon and Kushinagar in India where the Buddha passed on. He brought back soil and water from those four places, mixed them together into a ball and kept the ball in the cave. Supposedly, a Buddha relic appeared at the base of that ball and then proceeded to multiply of its own accord. In 1996, when a pagoda was built there, the relics were placed above the ceiling to show respect.

A meditation class.

But now I’m getting ahead of myself! For many years, Master Thavaro taught meditation using the cave as his centre. Over time, particularly in the 1990s, several buildings were added to the site. In the year 2000, it was established as a monastery with Master Thavaro as the first abbot. It is a wonderful place which I hope to visit again before too long.

A bodhi tree from India, under which the Buddha found enlightenment.

The atmosphere is calm, what I would expect from such a place, but it is also much truer to what I think of as real Buddhism than most temples are. For example, everything here was built by the monks and nuns rather than by outside contractors. Those monks and nuns live a simple, self-sufficient monastic lifestyle which was normal during the time of the Buddha but is not so now. Also, the abbot was opposed to the commercialisation of Buddhism so, unlike most temples in Thailand, Wat Tham Yai Prik does not offer services such as fortune telling, amulet selling or even the sprinkling of holy water. It is a policy which means the temple doesn’t get much by way of donations.

Everything here has been built by the monks and nuns.

Meditation is still taught here and anybody can go. You can even stay here although the accommodation is basic. If you fancy the idea of learning to meditate, I can’t think of a nicer place to learn. If you’ve practiced meditation before, come and try it here. You can call them on (+66) (0) 3821 6104. At least one of the nuns even speaks English! Surprisingly, the language doesn’t seem to be a barrier. I met a Russian woman here who was on a five day meditation course. She couldn’t speak any Thai or any English but was really pleased she had come for the course.

Part of the vegetable garden - they are not just self-sufficient here, they even give the surplus to members of the local community!

Sadly, Master Thavaro passed on in March 2007. In June 2008, Nopphadon Khunesako was appointed abbot and, although nuns are no longer ordained here, he seems to be continuing to run the monastery in the spirit intended by its founder. He says he is also influenced by the late reformist monk, Phra Buddhadasa of the Suan Mokh forest monastery in Surat Thani and his belief that being mindful in everything we do amounts to the same thing as practicing Dhamma – essentially a path of self imposed discipline which includes the cultivation of mindfulness and a wisdom which comes from understanding the nature of things.

Lunch break for course participants.

Incidentally, during building works in 1998, they found a picture of Prik which is now in the original cave that Master Thavaro meditated in.

In the cave, the black and white picture below and at the right of the Buddha is Prik.





A Year in Bangkok – Koh Si Chang

22 05 2011

Colourful fishing boats in Koh Si Chang harbour.

I picked up my new car last weekend. That was quite a big deal as, shortly before leaving England, I gave my car to my son and promised myself that, from then on, I would lead a cleaner, greener life and only use public transport or occasional hire cars. Well, I lasted for about six and a half years but the journey to work has pushed me back into car ownership – and I’m already feeling the benefit! It was the last weekend before school started back so I decided we should go away. Looking at a map, I spotted Koh Sichang, a small island not too far from Bangkok that I have intended visiting for some time. This seemed to be as good a time as any so I spent Friday evening on the internet finding out about the place and booking somewhere to stay and then we set off on Saturday. We made a major detour to pick up a friend who wanted to join us so lunchtime found us at Si Racha rushing to park the car and board a seriously overloaded ferry for the island. It is actually about two hours from our house but had taken us four due to the detour. The ferry had a legal capacity of 154 passengers but there must have been close to three hundred crammed on to it. We were a bit nervous about the dangerous overloading but, hey, this is Thailand!

The local tuk-tuk

This area is a huge deep water harbour and is full of giant cargo ships and tankers, quite a disconcerting sight. They unload out there into barges, which are often seen being towed up the Chao Phraya river in Bangkok. They are so unsightly they could have easily put me off going there had I known about them in advance. I am so glad that I didn’t know about them. Koh Sichang is a small fishing community (population just over 5,000 according to a local guy we were chatting with) which I am arrogantly going to say is part of the real Thailand. I say that because I am not enamoured of the tourist hot-spots or of their complete lack of what I think of as “Thainess’. So, whatever the real Thailand may be, this is part of it! It’s delightful, quaint, old-fashioned, rugged, inexpensive and one of the nicest places I have visited. I’m already looking forward to my next visit.

Beautiful rugged scenery and walks.

As the ferry approaches the island, the first thing you are likely to notice is an old Chinese temple built into the hillside. This is called San Jao Phaw Khao Yai and is believed to date back to China’s Ming dynasty. It is built around a cave-shrine which predates the temple by many centuries, a time when Chinese junks anchored in this vast natural harbor and a proper visit, which I didn’t manage on this trip, is highly recommended.

Lovely wooden school in the island's only town.

The first things I noticed when we landed were the local tuk-tuks which I can only describe as a cross between a chopper and a limousine. These beasts are powered by six cylinder engines and are unique to Si Racha (although I didn’t see any there) and Koh Si Chang. The second thing I noticed was the colourful jumble of fishing boats in the harbour.

All those big ships in the background!

We stayed in what is apparently the only proper hotel on the island, the Sichang Palace, where we had a sea view room for 1,400 baht. The sea view was actually a panorama of ocean going ships between the island and the mainland. Our friend didn’t want to pay so much so found somewhere else but, in asking around, we discovered places as cheap as 200 baht for the night.

A convalescent home for westerners, built by King Rama v.

A late lunch was followed by a tour of the island on one of those amazing tuk-tuks for just 250 baht and that gave us a good flavour of the island. Before we knew it, the afternoon had gone and it was time for dinner. We had already planned to have dinner at a restaurant called Pan and David’s. They are a Thai/Western couple who have set up a useful, informative web-site about the island ( www.ko-sichang.com ) and also promote their restaurant on the site. Here’s a quote from it: Our food’s good because we’ve been putting our heart into our kitchen for a long time, and because we use the best ingredients.” Naturally, I was hoping it would be as good as they claimed.

Pan and David's restaurant.

First impressions were good – it was clean and attractive and we were very quickly shown to a table. I had hoped to meet Pan and David but they weren’t there. Sadly the food, although okay, wasn’t going to win any awards. All the western dishes were served with those tasteless frozen ‘french fries’ beloved by MacDonald’s and other restaurants of similar quality . A pity as real potatoes are easily obtainable here and most, if not all, of their western dishes would be so much better if a little effort was put into what they are served with. I ordered tuna steak and that was fairly good. For dessert, I had a moderately okay cheesecake. The menu claimed they had an extensive wine list and, after struggling to get the attention of one of the staff, I was told there isn’t actually a wine list – just take a walk to the chiller cabinet (which housed both red and white wines!) and choose – the price was clearly marked on all bottles. And that was the real gem of this restaurant. All the wine was very reasonably priced and that alone makes it worth going back to. We had a decent frascati for 750 baht. Just a week earlier, we had paid 1,200 baht for the exact same wine in a Bangkok restaurant. The food was good enough to make a return visit too but, as I said, not wonderful.

The original foundations for what is now called Vimanmek Mansion in Bangkok.

In the 19th century, the island was a getaway for the royal family. Three successive kings used to come here but it was King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) who really seemed to take to it. He initiated the building of a summer palace here, Munthat Rattanarot Mansion. Sadly, western colonialism pushed the royal family into abandoning the island and the mansion was never finished. The French claim to nearby Laos led to their gunships blockading the Chao Phraya river in the late 19th century and their troops occupying Koh Si Cwhite squirrelhang. A treaty was signed in 1893 relinquishing land on the eastern side of the Mekong river to France but they did not pull out their troops for another ten years. In 1901 the king had the almost finished mansion dismantled and moved to Bangkok where it was re-assembled and renamed ‘Vimanmek Mansion’. It is the largest golden teak building in the world and is well worth a visit. Here on the island, you can still see the original foundations of it.

Typical sea view on this rocky island.

Accommodation on the island is fairly limited but reasonably priced. There is no natural source of water on the island, so the people here rely on rain water stored in large cisterns that were built when the island was developed about a century ago. There is now a new water purification centre which a local guy proudly pointed out to us. Next week, I will write about a wonderful temple and meditation centre on the island.

More on this next week!

Next time we go, and there will certainly be a next time, I hope to see the squirrels. The island is home to a unique white squirrel which was hunted almost to extinction. Now, they are protected and are apparently a common sight which I hope to see very soon.

Time to risk getting that ferry back.








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