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.

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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 – Back to School

5 06 2011

Happy to be at school.

This may seem a strange thing to say, but I’m happy to be back at school. I’ve missed the kids during the long holiday but will doubtless be fed up of them by the end of the semester! The school I work in is seventy one years old this year which may not seem too impressive by European standards (the school I went to in England celebrates its 500th anniversary next year) but it is certainly quite old for Thailand. It is now on its third site and during those seventy one years, has produced several heads of government departments and no less than six prime ministers.

The top of primary - literally!

We had a big celebration for the ‘birthday’ last year with a sit down meal and performances by all the students. The meal was really sumptuous and mainly Chinese as Bang Khae, where the school is, is a largely Chinese area.

Let's get serious.

For starters, we had the unusual mixture of prawn crackers, French fries – I suspect the fries might have been for my benefit – and dim sum. This was followed by a rather nice pork and quail egg soup and then spicy spicy squid. Next came roast duck with sweet plums followed by a prawn and glass noodle salad. Finally, for dessert, we had hot beans in sweet syrup. I felt happily bloated.

Preparing for that meal.

I get lots of love and affection from the students, who showered me with hugs and kisses for the first few days but the other teachers and the local people are all delightfully friendly too.

They start to learn about their culture in kindergarten.

People often offer to share food with me (maybe they feel sorry for me because I’m so skinny) and one day, as I was walking down the street, a local beggar sitting on the pavement having what was probably his only meal of the day offered to share his sausage and rice with me. Occasionally, one of the teachers in the school will prepare a Thai dish for me and shyly present me with it at lunch in the canteen.

We get silly at staff parties.

On the first day of this semester, colleagues produced small gifts for me from their holidays, all of which were edible and sweet and the parents of a new student have just provided me with some very tasty sweet coated peanuts. All of which might explain what happened at the tailor’s shop I go to.

A student 'luk thung' singer.

I needed new school trousers and I always get them from the same guy. He provides me with made to measure black trousers made from good quality natural fabric at a remarkably good price. All of my adult life, I have had a thirty two inch waist but when the tailor checked my measurements, he claimed that my waist was thirty six inches. I said he must have got that wrong so he measured again and showed me: thirty six inches. I suggested his tape measure had shrunk in the rains so he got another one out and came up with the same measurement.

Dancin' in the street? Almost!

It was time to gracefully accept the inevitable so, along with school wear, I ordered some new casual trousers too. Now, less than a month later, they are all feeling rather snug and this morning found me in Tesco Lotus buying some cheap off the rack trousers!

Traditional dance.

There are many things I like about the schools here in Thailand and one of those is the way they keep the culture here alive. Traditional dance for instance is taught in all of the schools I have worked in and there are regular performances. Traditional music is also highly regarded within the school system as are other arts.

Drummer boys.

But my favourite moment of the semester so far has to be walking to a nearby organic shop for some strawberries when somebody grabbed me from behind and hustled me down the next sidestreet. Was I being mugged? Was I about to be raped? Of course not. I hadn’t noticed it, but a truck was advancing along the road using a mini water cannon to water the plants along the roadside, regardless of who happened to be walking along. A thoughtful passer-by had just saved me from a soaking!

Modern version of a traditional dance.





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.





A Year in Bangkok – The Last Public Execution

23 04 2011

There is a ‘corrections’ museum in Bangkok which I would like to visit but have not been able to yet as my days off are public holidays and the museum is closed on public holidays – the days most people might want to visit it. So, I know nothing about the early prisons here. I do know that in the nineteenth century some prisoners were put in bamboo cages suspended above the canal near the Temple of the Golden Mount. The only food they got was from passers-by who took pity on them and gave them something to eat. Executions in those days were beheadings and, interestingly, the last beheading took place just across the road from where I lived for nearly six years.

Entering Wat Phasee

That was in my local temple, Wat Phasee, on my birthday, 19th August, but a good few years before my time, in 1919. The victim was called Boonpeng Heep Lek and nineteen was clearly not a lucky number for him. There was a strict procedure for execution. First, the prisoner would be whipped for three rounds with thirty strokes for each round. On the way to the place of execution, he would be punished with ‘the five instruments of restraint’ which were a leg chain, waist chain, neck chain, handcuffs and hard wooden stocks. At the place of execution, he would have to sit with both legs stretched out in front of him and his body was fastened to a wooden cross. His ears and mouth would then be filled with clay and the base of his neck was also marked with clay, the target area for the swordsman I suppose. Or it could have been to keep his spirit in.

The shrine to Boonpeng

An executioner would then perform an elaborate ritualistic dance with his sword in front of the condemned man until it was believed that the prisoner’s mind was calm. Calm? How could anybody possibly have a calm mind in such circumstances? At that point, a second executioner would use a sword to behead him from behind. I have seen some old, grainy photographs of that last beheading and they are not a pretty sight. After execution, the feet were cut off to remove the leg chain. Then his body was chopped into pieces and given to the vultures and crows. Finally, his head was impaled on a sharpened wooden pole and displayed for all to see.

The temple school which is sited on the old burial ground.

And now, Boonpeng Heep Lek has his own shrine with a steady stream of worshipers. People come here when they are wanting some good luck which strikes me as rather odd because poor old Boonpeng certainly didn’t have much luck in his life. And no, I don’t know what his crime was.  Wat Phasee itself, which dates back to the 1840s, is a lovely and busy local temple with a very unusual stupa, the only one like it I have seen. In those days, it was right on the outskirts of Bangkok but now I would call it city centre. There was also a cemetery here for any remaining bits of executed prisoners after the vultures had finished but part of that land is now a school and the other part is earmarked for monks’ housing. I wonder if the students have any idea of the history of that piece of land. The temple itself is, in my view, well worth visiting but I don’t think it is mentioned in any of the guidebooks. As a point of information, it is on Ekkemai Soi twenty three. Later, execution was by machine gun and now it is by lethal injection but I have to say that I disagree strongly with the death penalty, however it is carried out.





A Year in Bangkok – Young Monks

10 04 2011

Go anywhere in Thailand, especially early in the morning, and you will see monks in their orange robes, the design of which hasn’t changed since the time of Siddhartha. Some time ago now, I was told that every man has to become a monk for a part of his life in order to fulfill the blessing of his parents.

Sometimes young boys disappear from school for a short time and return with their heads shaved, having become monks for a couple of weeks. More often though, they do that during the school holidays and especially now, the long summer holiday. Young boys can become novices at any age, but a man cannot become a monk until he gets to the age of twenty. He can then remain a monk for as long as he wants, even if it is just for a few days. One to three months seems to be more usual, although a minority choose to remain in monkhood for the rest of their lives.

I often feel here that Buddhism is very much a living faith and the monks have to abide by no less than two hundred and twenty seven strict precepts or rules of conduct. How strictly they are adhered to is another matter though. For instance, when my daughter came to visit, a young monk asked her to marry him, explaining that he wouldn’t be a monk for very long.

Sixty two young monks visited our housing estate to collect alms very early this morning. All of these boys, I believe, are fulfilling their family’s wishes during the summer holidays. They came from the local temple and their visit here was something of a special occasion which ensured that most of the people who live here were up and paying their respects.






A Year in Bangkok – Valentine’s Day

27 02 2011

Yet again, I’m a bit rushed at the moment so have decided to post something I wrote earlier, on what must have been my first February over here in Thailand.

 

All of a sudden it is Valentine’s day and I’ve been amazed at how the Thais have taken this Christian festival to their hearts, it’s a really big deal here. I have been deluged with gifts, mainly for my home and, for the first time, it is actually starting to look like a home. I now have vases of fresh and dried flowers, delightful fabrics, smelly things, a lime tree and even some tropical fish swimming around. Two friends came round and cooked me a western style meal then sent me out for a beer while they cleaned up! The only non-home present was an Armani shirt from one of them and I’m still feeling quite overwhelmed.

It was the same at school. The younger children covered my clothing with stickers, mainly heart shaped of course. Some of the older, teenage, girls gave me roses and even a couple of the teachers gave me roses.  Unfortunately, the roses have struggled to survive the day and, as I arrive back at my building, they give up the last of their limp petals. I arrive in my flat with a delightful bunch of stems which immediately go into a vase. Actually I don’t have any vases, so they go into an empty wine bottle which I’m sure they will appreciate. As stems go, they look quite good.

Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Today, the twenty first of February, is a special day, it is Makha Bucha day which is a big Buddhist festival. I went to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha with my two women friends who were so kind to me on Valentine’s Day. We walked round the temple three times constantly wai-ing and holding lotus blossoms, burning incense, a candle and some gold leaf which were all ceremoniously given to the Buddha afterwards. I just hope I’m not married to them now. After that, we strolled around town taking in the sights and sounds of people celebrating in every park, temple or public space we came across.

It’s the last Friday of the second semester and I’ve just taught my favourite class for the last time as they’ll all be leaving school now. Art and Boy especially, I shall miss your cheery good humour even when you’re being punished. My journey home is a pretty long one from here as I’m south of the river so the first stage of the trip home is a taxi to Thaliya Pepsi, or Pepsi Port but the Pepsi bit is pronounced Pepsee. From there I walk down a narrow alley to the river, always a colourful experience as this is a favourite spot for beggars and buskers. Many of these people are fed, housed and clothed by gangs who take all their ‘earnings’ and transport them to and from their begging spots. Because people with missing limbs make more money, I’ve even heard of them paying the families of these people sums like three thousand baht (about sixty pounds) in order to gain agreement to amputate a limb. Because of these practices, I usually only give to beggars who are local to me.

Thaksin Bridge

Once at the river, I pay three baht for a ferry across or I climb eighty six stairs to walk across Thaksin bridge to the sky train station. I will be glad when they open the southern extension of the sky train, my journeys will be so much easier. Today I’m feeling lazy so decide on the ferry. Whilst waiting, I spend ten baht on a small tub of hot delicious sweet corn.

Later, on the sky train travelling to Thong Lor, somebody said “Excuse me, do you live here?” A little surprised, as it’s the first time a stranger has approached me with that question, I replied in the affirmative.

The Sky Train

“Oh great” he said, “Can you tell me how to get to Chatuchak?” Chatuchak is the huge weekend market here, it’s the size of a small town. Having warned him it was only fully open on Saturdays and Sundays, I told him:

“The easiest way is to get a sky train to More Shit and just follow the crowds but beware, it’s very hot and crowded there”

“More Shit?” he said “that’s what the place is called?”

“Yes” I replied “but it’s spelt Mo Chit”

“You’re winding me up” says he “nobody could call a place More Shit”

“Really” I said “it’s More Shit”

“No, I’m not falling for that but thanks for your help mate.”

I suppose I could have told him how the Thais have great difficulty making the ‘ch’ sound or that ‘o’ often sounds like a short ‘ore’ but would he really have been interested? I would love to have seen his face though when the disembodied voice on the sky train announced

“Next station, More Shit.”

On the sky train

At Thong Lor station, I get my fourth mode of transport for this journey, the little red bus. This costs five baht and is a bit like a taxi in that bus stops are ignored, it will stop wherever somebody hails it or when somebody presses the bell. Walking to where the bus starts its journey, I stop to buy a banana pancake – one of my favourite Thai snack foods. It’s a thin crepe like pancake filled with sliced banana and condensed milk – unhealthy but great to eat. I love sitting on the bus watching the sights along Soi Thong Lor. Today one of the wedding shops is offering a ‘buy one get one free’ deal. First time I’ve seen that one for weddings and I wonder what sort of message it’s sending! There’s a new shop too, advertising ‘used books, coffee and cakes’. I hope only the books have been used. I’m wishing I’ve got my camera with me as the bus driver has such a characterful face, sat thinking about that so that I have to be shouted at to get off the bus at the end of the line. Just after crossing the footbridge over the canal, I notice a banana tree coming into bloom and think it would be good to photograph the different stages – must remember to pop out over the weekend.

The Little Red Bus

Because the main road is so busy and I rarely feel suicidal, I take a detour to use a footbridge. This bridge is a delight as it is normally lined with hawkers including a traditional herbalist. Sometimes there is a guy who sells beautiful, hand made artificial flowers. To top them off, he attaches finely detailed hand made insects. Last time I saw him, I’d just bought a couple of chilled beers in the convenience store and, as I was passing him, he said “Ah beer, welly good” so I decided to have one with him. We used the sharp edge of the railing to open the bottles and, as we were drinking, had the sort of conversation I love. He gabbled away in Thai and I gabbled away in English. With the help of many gestures his story emerged. He is only there occasionally as he has terminal cancer and now spends much of his time in hospital. When he’s out, he raises the funds for further treatment by doing this. It’s a while now since I’ve seen him so I hope that isn’t bad news.

Once I’m over the bridge, I generally stop to say hello to the lady on the fruit stall and then I’m home and straight into a lovely cold shower before demolishing a plate of mango and watermelon.

 








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