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 – 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!

A Year in Bangkok – Wildlife Watching

20 02 2011

Entering Kui Buri National Park

There is an article in today’s Bangkok Post informing us that a poacher has been shot dead in Kaeng Krachan national park. Apparently there was a shoot-out between forest rangers and a gang of poachers on Friday. The same gang is suspected of being behind the slaughter of an elephant in Kui Buri national park last October but they were disturbed by visitors to the park. Sedatives, darts and the remains of some dusky langurs were found in their camp.

Slaughtered in Kui Buri 20th October 2010

Some time ago, I read that elephant attacks on humans were on the increase and that this is a world-wide phenomenon. There is no consensus on why this should be although common sense suggests two probable causes to me: poaching and the animal/human conflict over land use.

Elephant in Kui Buri

Kaeng Krachan has long been a good place to see wild elephants but it is becoming quite dangerous now due to elephant attacks and more than one person has died as a result of that. Quite a lot of hotels in the Hua Hin area offer wildlife watching trips to Kaeng Krachan but I’m not too sure how safe they are.

Elephant in Kui Buri

I know a Dutch guy who has a small boutique hotel near Hua Hin and he also takes people on such trips. Not only does he own my favourite hotel in Thailand (The Long Beach Inn in Dolphin Bay), he also knows his animal behaviour and is the only person I would happily go wildlife watching with.

Long Beach Inn, Dolphin Bay

January and February are arguably the best months for seeing some of this country’s magnificent wildlife. The main reason for this is that, as we near the end of the dry season, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the animals to find water thus making it easier for us to predict where we might see them. There is a relatively new national park now at Kui Buri, about an hour further south of Hua Hin and this is probably the best place in Thailand to see elephant as well as all sorts of other wildlife.

Elephants in Kui Buri

There are two safe places to watch from here. One is up a tree with a rickety platform in it and is good for elephant watching. The other is a cliff top and, from there, you can see gaur and other large mammals if you are lucky.

Gaur from the cliff top in Kui Buri

You go to the visitor centre and wait there while park rangers check on animal movements and they then take you to the best place for watching them.   You can see dusky langurs in both of these parks but my favourite place for watching them is Khao Sam Roi Yot national park, very close by and so close to The Long Beach Inn that you can cycle there, using a bike which Bram (the hotel owner) will happily lend to you.

Dusky langur in Khao Sam Roi Yot

There are several big cats in Kui Buri and you can stay there overnight. The first time I went there, it was seriously difficult to find as nobody in Kui Buri city seemed to have heard of it and we ended up getting directions from somebody at the local police station but now it is well signed from the main road.

Leopard in Kui Buri

A Year in Bangkok – Sunbirds.

5 02 2011

Female olive-backed sunbird.

Well, I’ve got back to Bangkok and, of course, to too much work including having to replace four teachers right at the end of the school year!

But, joy of joys, a pair of olive-backed sunbirds are now regular visitors to the tiny patch of gravel (with a few plants) that we grandly call our garden.

Female olive-backed sunbird feeding.

They come every day and don’t seem to be at all bothered by us watching them from just a couple of feet away. I didn’t see any of these when I was living in the city although a lost, tired and completely shagged out pied kingfisher once landed on my balcony for a rest.

Male olive-backed sunbird feeding.

A Year in Bangkok – A Day in Samut Prakan.

11 12 2010

This delightful coffee shop was an opium den before being moved to the Ancient City.

Just outside Bangkok is a place called Samut Prakan. You can easily get there by bus or by taxi and it is a major tourist area, especially for the Thais. There is a place there called ‘The Ancient City’. I can only describe it as a kind of theme park but I don’t mean that in the sense of Disneyland or other such places. It is a huge area, more than eighty hectares, in the shape of Thailand itself. The entrance fee includes bicycle rental and you easily spend a day going round. Here, you will find all the traditional architecture of Thailand, each in its correct geographical location, beautifully done replicas of historical buildings such as the cliff top temple at Preah Viheer on the Cambodian border and entire buildings which have been dismantled at their original sites and brought here for preservation. It is all extremely well done and in surprisingly good taste. There is, of course, a shopping street and even a floating market with lovely food stalls. Alternatively, there is lots of open space if you’d rather take a picnic with you. So far, it is probably the best tourist attraction I have visited in the Bangkok area and I am already looking forward to my next visit.

Northern architecture in the Ancient City.

Also in Samut Prakan is a Crocodile Farm where you can watch crocodile wrestling and see Yai (the Thai word for ‘big’) who is the largest known Siamese crocodile, about six metres long. A crocodile farm is sort of like a trout farm back home but, instead of lots of tasty little fish being bred in it, think of large, dangerous prehistoric creatures which might quite like to eat you. Apparently there are over thirty thousand crocodiles in this farm. I came here with Thai friends and found what I now know are the usual two tier entrance charges. One, very low, price for Thais and another, much higher, price for foreigners. This always seems racist to me and I don’t like it. Fair enough if it is attractions supported by government money (such as national parks) and the distinction is between tax payers and non tax payers which, in practice, is often the case. National parks for instance, give me the Thai price when I produce evidence that I work and pay taxes here. These people refused to give me the Thai price as they are a private enterprise and receive no subsidy from the government. So I asked how they justified the price difference. Because ‘farangs’ are richer I was told. For a start, that is simply not true – take my boss as an example, who probably leaves more cash lying around her bedroom than the average Brit earns in a year. To me, that was pure racism which I was not prepared to support so I told my friends I would go for a walk while they went round the crocodile farm.

Reclining Buddha in the Ancient City.

Much later, I went to another private enterprise attraction and was immediately given the Thai price with no problem. Equally annoying, I have Thai friends who live and work in other countries, therefore not contributing to the economy here via taxable income. They come home for a holiday (both having taken other citizenship – one British and one German) and, because their appearance is so obviously Thai, they are charged the Thai price wherever they go.

Part of the Ancient City's floating market.

After about half an hour into my lone walk, I came upon a small village. Walking out of the village, I spotted a movement on the ground out of the corner of my eye. It was a beautiful green and yellow snake, a banded krait, entering a drainage pipe. These snakes, which are very poisonous, often live near human settlements. American troops, during their war in Vietnam apparently referred to them as ‘two step Charlies’. They believed that if you were bitten by one, you took two steps and then dropped dead. A Vietnam veteran I sometimes see in a fish and chip shop told me that this isn’t true. He said that he once saw a Vietcong get bitten by one and he took five steps before he died. Small, beautiful and deadly. I was delighted to catch a glimpse of one but also pleased that it was a good few metres away from me.

Just two weeks from today, Christmas day, I will be moving house to Samut Prakan province where I hope to avoid ‘two step Charlies’ and start getting some fresher air into my lungs!

There is even a herd of deer in the Ancient City!

A Year in Bangkok – A Weekend in Khao Yai

5 12 2010

Sign seen inside the park.

Khao Yai is Thailand’s oldest national park, founded in 1961, and is a National Heritage Site. It is over 2,000 square kilometres and is one of the biggest intact monsoon forests in Asia. It is a beautiful area but, sadly, road building to carry the traffic to expensive up-market resorts is cutting a swathe through that monsoon forest. If you saw the movie “The Beach’ you’ve seen a bit of Khao Yai as the waterfall they jump off near the beginning is actually Namtok Haew Sewat inside the park and trying to jump off it would be very silly indeed.

Namtok Haew Sewat.

There is a healthy population of wild elephant here and a wealth of other wildlife including tigers, leopards, various types of deer, bears, gibbons and the country’s largest population of hornbills. As you drive in the main entrance, you will usually see several macaques along the roadside. Once, I saw a monster scorpion on this roadside – it stood out as it was taking a rest on the white line at the side of the road. I stopped to look and was able to persuade it to take a little stroll up my arm! Another time, I saw some kind of marten here – imagine a pine marten if you know them and then think about twice as big and you‘ll have a rough idea.

Wild elephants in the park.

I first came here in October 2004 and stayed in the dire Phubade hotel in nearby Pak Chong, described by Lonely Planet as “Clean, well-maintained rooms catering to business people and Thai government officials have private bath.” Clearly, the person who wrote that had never stayed there. Usually, I find Lonely Planet very reliable but the more I get to know Thailand, the more inaccurate I find their Thai guide book. The hotel was grubby at best. I saw my first cockroach in Thailand in my room and there was certainly nothing even vaguely resembling a bath, private or otherwise – maybe they meant the Thai government officials have a private bath elsewhere! They also recommended a company called Wildlife Safari for guided treks and they were excellent. I cannot recommend them too highly.

This picture of a hornbill was taken through somebody's telescope.

I went on a day trek sometimes following elephant trails through the jungle and sometimes following a river. At the start of the day, we were surrounded by the eerie sound of gibbon calls high up in the tree canopy but despite the fact that there must have been an awful lot of them, we didn’t see a single gibbon. In the years since then, I have only rarely been treated to a glimpse of one. We ended up on that trek by approaching Haew Sewat falls from down river and it was a magnificent sight, especially in October when it is in spate as it is the end of the monsoon season. This was the first time I ever wore leech socks – very useful indeed at this time of year.

Our exclusive resort!

The guide was great, very knowledgeable about the plants and animals we saw but the going was very tough and, because the river was fairly high, included some rock climbing which I am not good at. As soon as I get a couple of feet above the ground, I start to get vertigo and, at one point, we were balancing along a ledge about ten feet above the raging torrent below us.

Our 'pool villa suite'.

The road from Pak Chong to the park was just starting to get a few resorts along it and, since then, Khao Yai has become the weekend playground of Bangkok’s privileged classes. That road and the surrounding area is now covered with resorts and housing development projects.

A giant sofa inside.......

I have been back several times for day trips from the city but have only just gone back to stay. And get this, we stayed in a place which costs just over 28,000 baht a night _ that is about six hundred pounds sterling. Not the sort of thing we usually do, especially as that didn’t include breakfast! It was my prize for winning a photography competition organised by Central Department Stores here.

.....and another one on the roof.

The place was lovely but, to my mind, absolutely not worth that sort of money. It is a tiny, very exclusive resort with just seven accommodation units and we had the pool villa suite which, as the name implies, included our own little private pool.

You need to be reasonably fit as there is no lift or disabled access.

Clearly then, we were going to make the most of this prize so we saw very little of the park on this trip, only popping in to see Namtok Haew Narok, an amazing waterfall which I think has Thailand’s largest single drop. It has three tiers but you can only get to see the top one. To get to it, you have to climb down what feels like thousands of steep concrete stairs.

Namtok Haew Narok in the dry season, sometimes called 'the walking man'.

I particularly wanted to see it at this time of year as it is in spate and there was a huge volume of water going over it.

Namtok Haew Narok in spate.

The park authorities have put up lots of concrete pillars in the jungle approaching the river near the top of the falls. This is to try and stop elephants getting through as they have been known to be swept over at this time of year. If you like waterfalls, then this is a must see but the steps are a bit scary if, like me, you are not good with heights.

Some of those steps.

Basically though, we chilled at our very expensive hotel, the Sala Khao Yai, but we were seriously disappointed by the quality of the food in their restaurant. Never mind, it was a lovely little break and an interesting experience staying in a place like that which, incidentally, the Tourist Authority of Thailand describes as ‘the best of the best resorts.’

Enjoying the sunken bath.

We drove back home through the park and took the lesser used southern route. I’m glad we did as it is still undeveloped on that side – much the same as the north west side was when I first visited and we found what looked like a pleasant, traditional place to stay whenever we decide to go again.

Some of the photographs in this entry were taken by Peter and Louise, two younger friends who each spent about five months here with us.

Looking from the resort toward the park.

A Year in Bangkok – Road Trip to Krabi – Part 3

22 11 2010

Not so long ago, this area was devastated by a tsunami. Now these signs are the main reminder.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Krabi is a beautiful area. A pity that it rained so much but that’s what you get for coming in the rainy season. The combination of rainy season and the massive downturn in tourism here meant that Krabi, one of Thailand’s most visited areas was almost empty.

Still beautiful in the rain.

We stayed at Ao Nang which is a usually very busy resort area. Sadly, things are so bad here that our hotel rates were reduced by almost eighty percent just to get people in there. The hotel was a Best Western which I usually find are okay places. This one was okay, not worth the rack rate but about right for the amount we paid. The staff were lovely. We usually avoid the major tourist areas but it has to be said that the people we encountered here all had a real idea of providing a service, unlike many of the places we go to. As we wandered through the empty town on our first evening, restaurant runners tried to entice us in with ever increasing discounts from the menu prices. One guy was less than amused when I asked how much he would pay us to eat there.

Every village, no matter how small, has at least one mosque.

I think everybody who visits Krabi goes round the islands in the Andaman sea and goes snorkeling – those are the things the area is famous for. We immediately booked an island trip but it was cancelled due to the weather conditions. There is a lot to see and do inland too and one of the first things we did was visit Ban Laem Pho. This small headland is often called the shell cemetery and is the world’s only major coastal site of mollusc fossils. They are about 75 million years old and are preserved in fossil beds which are between one and two metres thick. Most of them are beneath the high tide level but are exposed when the tide goes out. They looked rather like broken slabs of concrete but, up close, they were absolutely filled with fossils. I was surprised that we were allowed to walk on them which, coupled with the tides must cause a lot of erosion. Apparently the tsunami also did quite a bit of damage.

The fossil beds looked like broken slabs of concrete.

I had heard a lot about Railay beach and particularly wanted to go there. Again, it is on a headland but this one cannot be reached by land, you can only get there by boat. The downside of there being so few tourists about was that not many boats were going so we hired our own.

Heading towards Railay Bay.

One reason I wanted to go was to see Hat Phra Nang which Lonely Planet describes thus: “quite possibly one of the world’s most beautiful beaches with squeaky white sand, frolicking monkeys and views of limestone islets peeking out of the cerulean sea.” What can I say? Basically, I was not as impressed as the person who wrote those lovely words. I can’t begin to count how many beaches I’ve been to in Thailand which seemed far more beautiful to me never mind in other countries. The frolicking monkeys were a nuisance, stealing food from people on the beach and, due to their natural fear of humans having gone, behaving in quite a threatening manner. You could see the islets but, because of the weather, the sea certainly wasn’t cerulean although it usually is in this area. Ah well, Railay itself was lovely and I’m glad we went. Plenty of beaches but some of them surprisingly busy and a lot of holiday accommodation spoiling the area.

Hat Phra Nang - at least we could see an islet!

There is a rather interesting cave here called the ‘Princess Cave’ which is adorned with phallus symbols. According to local legends, an Indian princess was drowned here in the third century BC and her spirit inhabits the cave. She happily grants favours to all who come along to pay respect and local fisherman, keen to get her help, place the phalluses in her cave hoping she will provide them with plenty of fish.

The Princess Cave,

The rock climbing here on Railay is amongst the best in the world and there are about five hundred bolted routes catering for all abilities, from absolute beginners to serious climbers. There are also proper climbing schools here offering a range of courses for the plucky and foolhardy. The big trend here at the moment is called deep water soloing. This involves free-climbing (i.e no ropes etc) on ledges over deep water so that if you fall (and many deliberately do so) the chances are you will just get wet. Even beginners are doing this now! Clearly, these people are far more daring than me.

A braver man than me!

As we got on our boat for the trip back to Ao Nang, storm clouds were gathering. The boat was a little rocky at first which made for some interesting video footage. Soon, it really started to roll and we decided to don life jackets. As it continued to pitch and roll, we were hanging on for all we were worth and, at the same time, praising the skill of the boatman who miraculously got us back to dry land in one piece if ashen faced with terror!

Railay beach west.

Being gluttons for punishment, we went to visit Phi Phi island by speedboat the next day. Once we had left and were, therefore, trapped, they told us they were expecting rough weather. So the life jackets came out and we cursed our stupidity for doing this. It was rough but nothing like as bad as the day before. However, the weather meant that some of our scheduled stops had to be cancelled including the beautiful (or it was when I was last there, just before the tsunami) Maya Bay which was the location for the movie ‘The Beach’ and, by all accounts at the time, had been seriously cleaned up by the film people. We got to Pileh Bay, a very pretty lagoon and then on to Phi Phi Don for lunch.

Phileh Bay.

Last time I was at Phi Phi it was pretty much spoiled by the development there. The tsunami hit it from both sides, completely wiping out the development here. A great opportunity could have been created from that tragedy but no, the backpackers need their island resort and it is again being ruined, to the point where I fail to see how this despoilation can be sustainable.

Looking down on Phi Phi Don from the tsunami evacuation route.

All of this region now has well signed tsunami escape routes but here, shopkeepers use the signs to hang clothes and other things on so the signs are completely hidden. If the unthinkable were to happen again, I wonder whether any of the tourists here would have clue where to go.

Beach on Bamboo Island.

On our way back, we passed Viking Cave. About a dozen people live in this cave to protect their investment here. Swiftlets nest in the cave and, after breeding has finished each year, their saliva nests are collected for bird’s nest soup. Because the nests are in such inaccessible parts of this huge cavern, it is not unusual for a nest collector to fall to his death. What the boat people didn’t tell us is that this remarkably inaccessible cave also has some prehistoric cave paintings in it.

Viking Cave.

I think that, after the obvious impression created by the limestone karsts, my other memories of this region will be the rubber plantations and the mosques, which you see in every village no matter how small.

Rubber plantation - you see these all over the south.......and at my friend's place in Surin!

We drove back northwards the quick way, following the main roads. Of course, it rained. Oh boy, did it rain making the driving even more hazardous than driving here is normally. We were heading for possibly our favourite hotel in Thailand, the Long Beach Inn at Dolphin Bay. As we got to Pranburi, just a few miles from our destination, we saw the end of the rain clouds ahead of us. At last, a bit of luck weather wise!

End of the rain clouds.

A lovely night chilling at the hotel where the owner had very kindly upgraded us to the best room, complete with Jacuzzi before we made a very short drive to the five star Evason Hua Hin for the last night of our holiday. Current low prices made us go for a luxurious finish.

Pool at the Long Beach Inn, Dolphin Bay.

I don’t know why they call it Evason Hua Hin when it is not in Hua Hin. It’s about half an hour drive away, via Pranburi. It is very nice but ludicrously expensive, even by western standards. We bumped into somebody we know there and went out together for dinner in Hua Hin and then had a leisurely drive back to the concrete jungle the next day. A lovely little holiday had just come to an end but no problem as the schools are still out so we’ll be off on our travels again very soon.

A poisonous sea urchin.....and something he found on the sea-bed.

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