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 – 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 – Songkran

16 04 2011

May your new year be full of wetness!

Well, here we are at Songkran again. The Thai sense of fun really comes out at Songkran, the Buddhist new year in the middle of April. As almost any excuse will do for a party, we celebrate three new years here. First we celebrate the western new year which is now officially recognised as a public holiday, then we celebrate the Chinese new year but the big one is the start of three days of madness and mayhem properly known as Songkran.

Good fun whatever your age.

Most of Bangkok’s population comes from the rural areas so they mainly go home to be with family, much as we do at Christmas. On the first morning, people traditionally visit their local temple to build sand stupas and wash the Buddhas. By lunch time though, the festivities are in full swing. Stemming from the tradition of giving water to the Lord Buddha at this, the hottest time of year, people stand on the streets or drive by in pick-ups and soak anybody within range, topping it off with talcum powder.

Water for the Buddha.

One tradition behind this is that if you wet the hands of an elder, they will grant you a wish. The powder bit is just for fun.

My first year here, I managed to miss it in town on the first day as I went in shopping early but going home was a little different. As the little red bus dawdled up the street, people threw buckets of water through the open doors, many of them throwing it at the ceiling to ensure that it would splash back down with maximum effect.

Wetly getting off the bus and walking home, one of the local stall holders squirted me with her water pistol so I warned her – one more time and she was going to be tickled.  Of course, she took up the challenge and my shopping lay abandoned while I chased and tickled her. I was made to wait a few minutes and she came back with a lotus garland which she put round my neck along with a little sniff kiss.

Getting back as far as my apartment block, I was greeted with “Ah, Khun Ben” from some of the staff who then thoroughly soaked me yet again and covered me in talc.

Sadly, drunk driving is a major problem during this festival and huge numbers of people are killed, they even ran death counts in the corner of the TV screens when I first came here but now, that is restricted to the news programmes. In just one year the road death count over this three day holiday period was around five hundred and forty with another four thousand injured. Apparently most of these people were on motorcycles. Human life is relatively cheap out here and I can only imagine the outcry over such a thing happening back home.

During the evening of the main Songkran day in my second year here, I went night-clubbing Thai style with some friends. We always eat there, and get live cabaret style entertainment with lots of slapstick comedy and some really good singing. This goes on to about midnight, after which there is western music and dancing. No dance floor though, everybody just stands at their tables and dances. The cost of such a night out including all food and drink is normally under ten pounds a person – UK prices are always quite a shock to the system when I go home for a holiday.

Officially, the three day holiday is divided as follows: the thirteenth of April is Elder’s Day, the fourteenth is Family Day and the fifteenth represents the first day of the new year. Songkran comes from Pali and Sanskrit and means ‘a move or change in the position of the sun from Aries to Taurus’.

Lots of countries in this region celebrate similar festivals at this time of year although they have different names in each country. Essentially though, they celebrate the start of a new year after a harvesting season is over and before the start of summer. This year it is 2554 but they no longer advance the date at Songkran, they moved that bit to 1st January some time ago to fit in with the ‘developed’ world.

This year, we spent the final day of Songkran cycling round the Ancient City in Samut Prakan. I forgot to take anything long sleeved and I forgot sun block so I now look like a cross between a giant stick insect and a lobster.

Regardless of the history of this manic festival, I’m perfectly happy to simply think of it as the biggest water fight in the world! And many thanks to Alex for the use of some excellent photos here.

Most accident victims are on motorcycles.





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 – Moving House

31 12 2010

Farewell to the old place.

As we had mid-term tests in school, I was able to take the day off on Tuesday. We got up ludicrously early and went out for breakfast as we had no food in and nothing to cook it with. Added to that, I was feeling exceedingly sorry for myself as I had just got one of those horrible Thai colds which make you feel that death by a million cigarette burns would be a far preferable option. Upon returning home, we threw ourselves into a frenzy of activity which essentially involved carefully placing every portable possession we had into a cardboard box, repeatedly saying “We don’t need this do we?” and running to the bin with the one thing we both agreed we could dispose of. At ten, four men and a bbt arrived and carried everything to the lifts. We were moving house!

Possessions start to accumulate by the lifts.

Seeing all that stuff at the lifts was a depressing sight. When I came here, I just a suitcase. I had given away or sold all my possessions in England and it had been a remarkably liberating experience. Now, here I am getting bogged down by possessions again. Of course, I have perfectly good sounding (to me) excuses for all of them. For example, the furniture in the apartment we rented was awful and uncomfortable so we bought our own. My first major purchase, before I even met my wife, was a sofa so that I had somewhere comfortable to sit and read. Before that, I went to a bar with comfy seats every night. I’m not quite sure here whether I’m coming up with an excuse for drinking or an excuse for that first big possession but, either way, it sounds good to me. And those four guys completely filled the bbt with our stuff. At one point, I even managed to worry about whether the bbt was big enough!

The 'bleedin' big truck' is starting to fill up.

There used to be a lovely restaurant in our apartment but, like everything else there, it has gone downhill. We decided to have lunch there and I ordered chicken and chips. My chicken came. The meat was still pink so I sent it back. We were then informed that they had no chips – peeling and frying a real potato is beyond them and they had run out of those ubiquitous frozen ‘french fries’ which seem to have over-run the world. So I told them not to bother with the chicken and got a sandwich from down the road. I blame myself for this as I should have known that obtaining a simple food order was unlikely in the restaurant now taken over by the building’s management rather than being independently run. Unfortunately, the new management in the building have taken over and destroyed every successful little business in the building – that is just one of the many reasons we decided to move out.

...and the 'bleedin' big truck' starts to be emptied at the other end.

Then off we went – the four guys and our stuff in the bbt and us in a taxi. Up to now, the house has been used mainly for storage so we had come out the weekend before to do some work on it and sort out the stuff but a weekend wasn’t long enough. A niece is going to come and take some of the furniture so we moved that into the car port before the bbt arrived and everything was brought into the house. We quickly got the stereo set up, unpacked some CDs and opened a beer. We were home! Then it was an early night as we were both tired and I had to go back to school on Wednesday.

School on Wednesday, but the two students on the left are actually teachers!

We woke up on Wednesday morning to the sound of birdsong – how lovely that is after those years in the city centre. I toddled off to work – my journey time is about the same but I now skirt the city instead of going right through it and my wife headed off to work a bit later. On the way to work, I notice what I think of as a ‘stork’ tree. Storks seem to congregate on one tree, all fighting to get a little standing room and yet they ignore other, empty, nearby trees. I suppose none of them wants to be a ‘Johnny-no-mates’. They can be quite spectacular sights.

A 'stork' tree.

I didn’t come straight home from work on that first day though as it was the staff new year party. And a very pleasant party it was too. Everybody except me was dressed up – I felt it had been a remarkable achievement to have found my regular work clothes that morning, never mind anything else. Also, they had forgotten to tell me it was a themed night but I am used to being the odd one out. There were two themes and one of them must have been cowboys as maybe half the people were dressed as cowboys. I couldn’t work out the other theme though – some were dressed as students, some as witches, some in drag, some in traditional Thai costume and one as the fairy from the top of the Christmas tree. Maybe that second theme was just called ‘freestyle’?

Freestylers.

An even bigger achievement than getting dressed was getting home. The school owner had brought some beer to the party to share with me (he’d told his wife it was really for me!) which was most pleasant. I got a taxi back and successfully directed the driver back to the housing estate – no mean achievement in the dark and after a few beers. The streets all look alike though so I tried to direct him down the wrong one but realised in time as the shop on our corner wasn’t there. The houses are probably the local equivalent of terraced houses back home, although they are given the much grander name of ‘town houses’ here. The trouble is, they all look the same. Especially in the dark. Especially after a drop of ale. And I hadn’t a clue what number ours was, not that I could see any numbers anyway. And everybody goes to bed early here, so no houses were lit up. Again, Lady Luck stepped in and, by chance, I stopped the taxi at the house next door and was able to spot our house by the stuff we had dumped in the carport.

This limbo dancing isn't as easy as it looks!

For tonight, we have a bottle of champagne in the fridge and if we are lucky, we will manage to unpack some glasses. I wish all of you a very happy new year 2011.

Home sweet home.





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!








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