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.

 

 





A Year in Bangkok – Bang Phli Old Market

6 03 2011

Artist's impression of how the market originally looked.

A little over four years ago, my god-daughter was staying with me and we were taken to a delightful old covered market on the outskirts of Bangkok. It was very run down and probably as many as half of the stalls were closed. Those that were still open were selling old fashioned and traditional goods. It was so run down and so many stalls were closed that the market seemed to me to be on the final stretch of a slippery downhill slope. A few months after that, I recognized it on a current affairs programme on the local TV – it turns out that a serious attempt was being made to regenerate the market with a view to attracting tourists. To say I felt cynical about the attempt to regenerate it and create yet another market filled with touristy baubles and copy goods would surely be an understatement. Sometimes though, it is really good to be able to eat your own words or, in this case, thoughts.

You cross this wooden bridge to enter the old market.

Some Japanese friends came over to look at our new home and have some lunch. Afterwards, we wandered into our local version of a town centre and, lo and behold, we were by that old market! We drove to the local temple, which seems to be commonly known as Wat Luangpho. Luangpho is the name people have given to a large bronze Buddha image here. My understanding is that the temple’s real name is Wat Phlapphla but it is also known as Wat Bang Phli Yai Klang. Just in case that isn’t confusing enough, there happen to be three temples in very close proximity here and taxi drivers are often unsure which is which. If you get to the right one, it is quite a nice temple and no doubt the others are nice too! There is also an outdoor market in the temple grounds.

Inside the old market.

To find the old market, if you are fortunate enough to be at the right temple, head towards the canal (Khlong Samrong) and follow it away from the road. It is lined with regular market stalls which are part of the outdoor market  and you will find a small pier from where you can take a short boat trip along the canal. Keep going and, in about two minutes you will reach a short narrow foot bridge which leads you into the market’s dark wooden entrance. Stepping over the threshold, you will need to give your eyes a moment or two to adjust to the murky light. You will see that you have entered a kind of narrow corridor stretching as far as you can see. The floor of this corridor is made of beautiful old teakwood and it is lined with small shops. The shops on the right are quite deep and are obviously homes as well but the shops on the left are on the canal side and are much smaller.

Boat trip along the canal.

There are no windows but many of the shops open on to the canal so a fair bit of light comes in from there and there are plenty of bare light bulbs overhead, hanging from dodgy looking frayed cables. It has a kind of musty smell as you enter which is quite pleasant and which changes as you walk along.

It can get quite busy.

This is one of the oldest markets in Thailand, founded in 1857 by Chinese traders. It was originally called Talad (market) Siri Sopon and, in those days, the canal it is situated on was a major trading route between the Chao Praya River and a place called Chacheoengsao. Today, the people live here much as they did 150 years ago, in wooden shop houses which, as the name implies, are both shop and home. Keep your eyes open in this wonderful old market – if you are lucky, you will see the local goldsmiths carrying out the ancient skill of beating and rolling their gold to make gold foil. These guys don’t just follow the traditional techniques, they even use tools which have been handed down through the generations. One guy has an amazingly old set of scales which, he says, belonged to his grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather! These lovely traditional shops exist alongside a handful of more modern ones which cater to the tourists’ spending power but even those shops retain a certain old-world charm.

Kitchenware.

They seem to sell everything here – carpentry tools, meat-on-a-stick, stationery goods, old agricultural tools which you might see in a museum back home, coffee, mushrooms, delicious sweet sticky things, toiletries, books, Buddha images, more coffee, traditional sweets and even pets.

Lovely tool shop.

There is even a delightful little visitor centre almost bang in the middle of the market. And, because this is Thailand, there are lots of little places to eat, many of them alongside the canal. Most of the tourists who come are ‘local’ tourists and I am seriously impressed with how they have regenerated this old market in a way that has restored many local traditions to their former glory. You should visit this place before it becomes well known – it is possibly the best example of ‘old Thailand’ I have seen so far.

Some of the many food stalls.

There is also an easier way to find it than through the temple. The end of the market furthest from the temple has a little footbridge made from a few boats strung together which lead across to the local Big C store. So simply ask a taxi driver to take you to Big C in Bang Phli Yai, walk through the store and out at the back, look for the bridge and you’re there!

The bridge to Big C.





A Year in Bangkok – Taling Chan

8 01 2011

One of the schools we  work with is in an area called Taling Chan. Despite not being too far from the city centre, it is delightfully rural. We get a two hour lunch break at this school and, so long as it isn’t raining, I have been able to take some lovely walks whenever I have been there. Everybody is friendly and I have some charming, if a little stilted, conversations. I wonder if I will ever master this language. One day, I discovered a Muay Thai (Thai kick boxing) school and was told that it is one of the best in the country and attracts a lot of foreign boxers who wish to learn the art of Thai kick boxing. I have watched this on TV a few times but have not seen a live match yet. The real gem of Taling Chan though is a floating market on the local canal.

Typical housing here.

In my view, the famous floating market at Damnoen Saduak is full of tacky souvenirs at rip off prices and exists only for tourists these days. However, I am very pleased that tourism has not had a negative effect on Taling Chan market, which is small but vibrant and a real local treasure, open only at weekends and holidays. The floating bit is quite small and consists of about twenty stalls offering a variety of ready prepared foods. These stalls are small boats which cluster around a floating pier, rather like a giant wooden raft and on that there are low tables for eating the food. Customers sit at these tables on the floor in the traditional Thai way, something I find distinctly uncomfortable and, both times I tried, within a few minutes, I found myself needing to move my lanky limbs before they went to sleep. As well as the food stalls, there are other stalls on the road selling all sorts of different things. Some of these stalls offer a stunning variety of orchids at what seem to me to be give away prices, I will soon find out why they are so cheap.

One of the temples we pass.

For some time now, I have wanted to tour the Thonburi canals but the only trips I have discovered go from Thaksin bridge over on the Chao Praya river and cost a fair bit so I haven’t done it yet. Here though, we are at the edge of Thonburi and they are advertising what seem to be the same tours at ninety baht so I buy myself a ticket. Everybody else on the tour is obviously Thai and there is a commentary, also in Thai. It is very loud and the commentator seems to be telling a lot of jokes – either that or they are all laughing at the lanky farang! Our first stop is at a temple. At first, I wasn’t aware of anything special about it but happily followed the others from my boat and we entered what were clearly building works. We all filed through a tunnel which went under one of the temple buildings where everybody stopped to kiss what looked like a piece of concrete. I don’t know why they did this and wondered if it could be the Thai version of the Blarney Stone. I chose not to kiss it myself as I’m still paranoid about all the local germs I might collect.

Local youngsters enjoy the facilities.

The building works were fascinating though. The temple is regularly flooded, possibly due to the land sinking, so the whole building was being lifted up and new foundations put in place thus significantly raising it. The ashes of King Thaksin the Great (who was tied in a velvet sack and beaten to death with a sandal wood club in the presence of King Rama I who deposed him) are in one of the temples here in Thonburi called Wat Intharam. The boat does not seem to stop there although we must pass by it at some point. That is a pity as I would like to see it but rather doubt that it is worth a special trip.

Something fishy here!

Back now to our long tail boat to go a bit further along the canals. Long tail boats are wonderful beasts which you see all over Thailand. They tend to be fairly small and narrow with massive engines, probably purloined from jumbo jets or something equally large. A long shaft comes from the engine with a small propeller on the end – the long tail! This bulky and doubtless heavy assemblage of engine and propeller is, in its entirety, hauled around by the boatman. How he negotiates some of the tight canal corners is beyond me but negotiate them he does. Despite also being on a road, all the houses face the canal as traditionally, this was the front side of the house. The shops also face the canal. I am told that there are still parts of Thonburi which have no roads or other services and are still totally reliant on the canals, even for their drinking water. And some of these houses are gorgeous. There are quite a lot of traditional wooden ones, including one surrounded by water which is for rent. I briefly fantasise about living here but, of course, there is the question of how I would get to work.

One of the orchid farms.

The other notable stop on the tour was at an orchid farm. I love orchids and it was great just wandering around the orchid farm taking in the huge variety of orchids bred and sold here. I cannot resist buying several plants despite the fact that I always kill house plants by refusing to water them. I now realize that we have passed several orchid farms and will pass many more before returning to the pier at Taling Chan, hence the orchid stalls at the market. I have really enjoyed touring these canals and seeing Bangkok from this angle, much as it must have been in the not too distant past. On our way back, we stop at a canal side stall to buy black sweet sticky rice cooked in bamboo. Lovely!

I won’t be writing any more posts for a short time now so apologies in advance, will be back as soon as I can!








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