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."





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 – 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 – Democracy and the Election

30 06 2011

Thailand's Democracy Monument

This Sunday, 3rd July there will be a general election in Thailand. It’s the third one in six years – I know because that is how long I’ve been here. Thailand is a liberal democracy and it seems to feature all the worst bits of liberal democracy U.S style. Lots of spin, strange (and probably empty) promises but no policies of any substance. And, on an unsophisticated electorate, this can work quite well, as it seems to do in the U.S. I get the feeling that this electorate might be getting a little more sophisticated but, of course, all things are relative.

The 2006 coup.

Since the ending of the Kittikachorn dictatorship in the 70’s, there has been a cycle of elections and coups in Thailand. A lot of that seems to be about how democracy fits with other, older institutions like the monarchy, the army and even the civilian bureaucracy and there is something about this election which makes me think it may really be about the country’s inability to agree on what democracy is for them.

The polling booths are starting to appear.

A big difference this time though is the non-presence of an ousted prime minister, currently a wanted and convicted criminal. He was deposed in 2006, was banned from politics and now lives in exile as he was sentenced in absentia, essentially for stealing huge sums of money from the Thai people. He is effectively fighting this election through a surrogate party called Pheu Thai as his own party, Thai Rak Thai was declared illegal and disbanded. He can’t be seen to head up the party so his younger sister Yingluck does and the general feeling here is that he pulls her strings. One of their slogans is “Thaksin thinks, Pheu Thai acts”. The strange thing is that they love him. Huge numbers of people really believe he will give them a better life – a bit like the sheep which liked Farmer Jones better because he fed them more…….and lo and behold, he got a better price for them at market. It is widely believed that if Pheu Thai wins, he will be given an amnesty and that the money which was (allegedly) stolen from the Thai people and then taken back by the courts will go back to the (alleged) perpetrator of the (alleged) crime. Amazing!

I'm sure that's the banned politician/wanted man on this election poster in his northern heartland.

This is a guy who recognized the potential of getting the uneducated poor on his side and, using his vast wealth and charisma, exploited it perfectly. Current populist policies include offering credit cards to farmers and free tablet computers for all school children. Quite how this country’s extremely poor farmers might repay their subsequent credit card debts is, presumably, somebody else’s problem. Financial analysts and academics though have attacked these policies as extravagant and unsustainable in the long term. This man has also been accused, not unjustly, of abusing his power in office for personal gain and of human rights abuses, particularly during his ill-conceived ‘war on drugs’.

And his sister Yingluck, probably going to be Thailand's first woman prime minister.

Then there is the current government. They weren’t really elected by the people but were the result of lots of behind-the-scenes dealing. A bit like the current farce of a government in the U.K I guess. But that is where any similarity ends even though the current prime minister is an old Etonian. Basically, he is viewed by those who oppose him as a front for other, more extreme and conservative interests and, as we saw just over a year ago, he is willing to use violence against demonstrators who oppose him politically.

The current, embattled prime minister, Abhisit.

There are twenty four other parties and I know little or nothing about most of them. One of them, which you can’t really fail to notice here, is the Rak Thailand party headed by a guy called Chuvit. Chuvit is known as the “massage parlour king” because he owned a chain of these dubious establishments, the biggest of which are almost industrial-scale brothels. I’m told he was Bangkok’s biggest massage parlour owner. He has re-packaged himself as a crusader against corruption, exposing the bucket-loads of cash (and maybe other payments in kind) he presumably made to police and politicians to keep his sex businesses running smoothly. Chuvit appears angry in his election posters, which urge the public to let him fight corruption. Think about it, does he sound suitable for fighting corruption? His posters are great though. One shows him carrying a baby with the message: “Politicians are like nappies, the more you change them, the better.” Another one shows him clasping his head. It reads: “Bored with politics but have to vote? Let me be in opposition to fight corruption.”

Chuvit.........would you let him hold your baby?

The other one I’m aware of, thanks to the posters, is the nationalist party which is urging the electorate to reject all of the candidates. Their posters are lizards, dogs, monkeys and other animals dressed as politicians. They read: “Don’t let the animals into Parliament”. But other parties have complained to the election commission that portraying politicians as animals is undemocratic and the Thai Veterinary Medical Association has claimed that the posters are offensive to animals. When the Bangkok Post reported that, their headline was ‘Beastly Posters Vex Vets’.

One of those beastly posters.

In effect, Thailand has two choices. An Abhisit government which has proven itself competent but, in my view, effectively represents ‘old’ money and risks a backlash in the streets from the red shirt faction. In other words, a conservative government. Or (the most likely outcome) a return to a Thaksin-inspired government which, in my view, represents ‘new’ money and which risks the staging of another military coup. In other words, a conservative government which claims to be something else, rather like the U.K’s ‘new’ labour some years ago which successfully convinced the terminally stupid that it was not really conservative.

Are the military awaiting the outcome of this election?

The passions which are aroused here suggests to me that finding a liberal and democratic way forward is going to be fraught with difficulties. Neither major party is really comfortable with the freedoms and compromises associated with liberal democracy but most Thai people themselves are. So where will that leave us? I, for one, really don’t know.

A recent newspaper report described the streets as having forests of election posters.








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