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 – Spirits, Ghosts and Shrines.

30 04 2011

On the roof of the apartment block where I used to live is a concrete plinth, about four feet high, with a miniature building on top of it, sort of halfway between a house and a temple. On a small platform at the front of the building, people make offerings of food and water, burn incense sticks, place flowers and even place small ornaments. You see these all over Thailand, including on the housing estate where I now live, and many of them are Buddhist shrines. Some, though, are not shrines but spirit houses. Spirits are very much a part of life here and they are believed to inhabit trees, the ground and even the air around us. When somebody builds a house or some other property, it is believed that the spirits who inhabited the land are displaced so a spirit house is always built for those displaced spirits in order that they are pacified for having their homes taken over. Kind of a spiritual compulsory purchase order I suppose. And it works too. I am never troubled by angry, homeless spirits when I am in bed at night.

A shrine near my house.

It is not easy for westerners to differentiate between shrines and spirit houses. Thai people don’t shake hands like we do, they ‘wai’ each other instead. A wai is when the hands are pressed palms together in a sort of praying gesture. The position of the hands is determined by the status of the person you are waiing. So, to wai an equal, your thumbs will be level with your chin but to accept a wai from somebody of lower status, your hands are at chest height. To wai somebody deemed deserving of extra respect, such as your boss or your mother in law, your thumbs should be level with the bottom of your nose. And so on. A lot of Thai people will wai the spirits as they pass a spirit house in the street as a sign of respect for those spirits, which is probably why it is so easy to confuse them with shrines, which they also wai. The offerings are to try and ensure that the spirits are comfortable in their homes. Old trees which are inhabited by many, often very good spirits, are also decorated and have offerings for the spirits as people want these good spirits to stay there and not move to somebody else’s tree.

A comfortable home for the tree spirits.

When they stay in a strange place such as a hotel or somebody else’s house, most Thai people will wai and tell the local spirits they are there for the night and seek protection from them. On a roadside near where I live, old spirit houses are discarded. They are simply thrown there, often smashed up and left. Quite an eyesore. Every now and then, a taxi driver bringing me home will wai those discarded spirit houses…..hands off the steering wheel and turning to face them as he wais. We’ve not had an accident yet so there must be some protection still emanating from them.

So, what is the difference? Firstly it is in origin. The shrines here originated with the Hindu faith whereas the spirit houses originated with animism. Secondly, both items offer protection but shrines are usually bigger and offer more protection – kind of a stronger version I suppose. As far as I can tell, those are the essential differences.

A typical, small spirit house.

Somebody I knew had a small tree removed from her garden and put up a small wooden spirit house for the occupants of the tree. She also had a little ceremony when some monks came to the house and blessed the new spirit house.

Spirit house on somebody's balcony.

I have a friend in York who leads ‘ghost walks’ and tells ghost stories on the local radio station. He will be delighted to know that, here in Thailand, ghosts are every bit as real as spirits and as real as you and I. My boss, and yes I do have a boss despite being head teacher, is a lovely Thai lady. She used to go on holiday to Phuket regularly but she has not been since the tsunami six years ago. Why not? Because she is afraid of the ghosts that must be there. Unlike the spirits who get moved into little spirit houses, ghosts are generally feared and they are everywhere in Thailand. However, in Phuket there is a major concentration of ghosts. Other things we view as supernatural are also regarded as a normal part of life here. For instance, in an interview, Thaksin Shinawatra (the prime minister ousted in the last coup) stated in all seriousness that his political problems were caused by somebody using black magic against him.

Ground level spirit house.

One arid, windless day I was sitting on a step in a quiet corner of the school grounds. Opposite me and to my right was the school wall and, also opposite me, was a blue plastic waste pipe running along the bottom of the wall and around the corner, continuing along the base of the wall. As I sat looking at the pipe, what looked like a small whisp of smoke appeared from my left and seemed to dance along the pipe as far as the corner where it disappeared into the wall. Remember, there was no wind at all. What was it? I have no idea but, for a Thai person, logic would dictate that it was some kind of spirit. I have discovered that logic, too, can be relative to where you are.





A Year in Bangkok – The Last Public Execution

23 04 2011

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

Entering Wat Phasee

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

The shrine to Boonpeng

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

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

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





A Year in Bangkok – Young Monks

10 04 2011

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

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

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

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






A Year in Bangkok – A Visit to Chinatown

27 03 2011

Read the rest of this entry »





A Year in Bangkok – Public Transport

19 03 2011

Getting to town from the apartment block where I used to live is easy and cheap so long as you avoid the roads – sometimes the traffic seems to just stand still for an hour at a time. I struggled along these roads until a chance meeting led me to be introduced to the wonderful but often rancid canal (Bangkok was once called the Venice of the east) along which operate water buses. My local pier is just five minutes walk away and, for about ten pence, I can get a water bus to the nearest underground station or straight into the main shopping centre for the princely sum of twelve pence. By using water, underground and sky train (an overhead rail system) I can move around town very quickly and enjoy the air conditioning of the train systems. Actually, the air conditioning on the train systems can be quite vicious and, when I have got on one whilst still wet after being caught in some of the Bangkok rain, it was far too cold and had me in shivers. A word of warning about the water buses too – keep your mouth shut! Every now and then, you get a face full of canal water and I dread to think what that might contain. I have often seen drowned cats and dogs in the water and, on one occasion very early in the morning I even saw a human corpse bobbing along. You can also see wildlife in there, I once saw a huge python which must have been two metres long and it is fairly common to see monitor lizards working the banks. They always seem to do this in pairs and if I see one now, I always look for the other one which is usually just a few metres away. They have very small heads and it is always a surprise to me when I see the end of a monitor lizard’s tail and realize how long the animal is for such a small head.

The water bus.

Amazingly to me, in the hot summer weather, people swim in the canals. Goodness only knows what diseases one could catch doing that. Sometimes, I just can’t cope with the noxious smells on the water so I then get the ‘little red bus’ to my nearest sky train station at a cost of five pence. It always seems like a miracle that these ancient buses, which have long since lost their doors and various other parts, continue to run. I’ve also learnt to take care on the pavements which the motorcyclists see as extensions to the road. On the rare stretches of pavement which are both wide and clear you need to be extra vigilant as it is entirely possible that a car driver will decide it is a handy way to move an extra ten metres up the ever static traffic queue. Pavements are also restaurants and places to sell your wares so there’s not much room left for the humble pedestrian.

Motor cycle taxi.

Transport generally is very different from back home. Motor cycle taxis are a common form of public transport here too. You can’t hail one like a normal taxi but have to go to one of their stands. They are fairly obvious as you’ll see lots of motor cycles and men in brightly coloured singlets with Thai numbers on the back. Just as the Thai alphabet is different to ours, so are the numbers. In central Bangkok, the motorcycle taxi drivers’ singlets are dayglo orange. These have to be one of the most dangerous forms of public transport, often called Bangkok helicopters by people here. In this city and in this traffic I occasionally decide, pervertedly maybe, to put my life in someone else’s hands by taking one of these motor cycle taxis. Usually, I only take such a risk if the traffic is at a complete standstill, especially as crash helmets are not usually available unless you carry your own. One reason I don’t like them is the death count of people I have known, which currently stands at three, or maybe four. I don’t know what became of the fourth who, after he came off a bike, I went to see in intensive care in the Camillian hospital near where I live and I couldn’t recognize him. His head had been shaved and cut open then stitched up again.  Various parts of his body were encased in plaster and several tubes were attached to other parts of his body. The last I heard of him, he was flown to England for further treatment.

Song Thaew.

Another form of public transport is the song thaew (thaew is pronounced the same as the beginning of the English word town) and quite literally means ‘two long seats’. No surprises then that this is a pick up truck with a bench down each side. Just like regular buses, they have a set route and use the normal bus stops. At busy times, they cram as many people as possible into them and it is quite a sight to see them traveling through the city traffic with several people hanging off the back of them. Song thaew drivers are like most other drivers of public transport here: they are protected by the Lord Buddha so the quality of their driving is not an issue. Above the driver’s seat you will see various symbols from the time the vehicle was blessed by the local monks.

Song Thaew.

When you use a song thaew, or any other form of public transport here, you should really try to forget about the driving and just enjoy the scenery if you possibly can. And, if you are in the countryside, there is usually some fairly spectacular scenery to enjoy. You will sit in one of the two long rows in the back, under a metal frame usually covered by thin aluminium sheets but possibly covered by canvas or plastic. You will share your seat with market traders and their chickens or other stock and with men armed with amazingly long hunting rifles which always look home-made to me. The driver will squeeze as many people in as he can, regardless of your comfort or even of your ability to breathe. I have been told that only boys or men are allowed to hang off the back of the song thaew, they don’t let women or girls do this. In practice though, I often see women and girls hanging off the back of them in rush hour Bangkok. It isn’t really a comfortable ride but it is always interesting. Forget about the po-faced passengers on British buses, here you are practically sat on each others’ laps and everybody is friendly and smiley about it.

Tuk Tuk.

As for the driver, he seems to believe that his is the only vehicle on the road. Either that, or he believes that the blessing the monks gave his vehicle provides divine protection. He will swerve into the oncoming traffic to pass another vehicle or an animal totally regardless of what might be heading for him, and therefore equally regardless for us squashed into the back. If another vehicle is heading our way, then the driver assumes he is hallucinating and presses on. We always seem to miss the oncoming vehicle but it’s so close we can see the whites of the eyes of its occupants and occasionally even count their fillings. The driver doesn’t even notice, flying along smoking his cigarette and listening to luk thung music (Isaan country music) at full volume on his CD player. The tyres are usually bald but that doesn’t matter as the drivers don’t seem to know how to use their brakes and simply accelerate if they ever notice a potential problem on the road.

Motor cycle taxi stand.

Outside Bangkok, rickshaws are very common. In Thailand, it is called a samlor which means ‘three wheels’ and they all seem to be operated by stringy older men with great leg muscles. They are a cheap form of transport and you often see people going home from the market in these, complete with enough shopping to stock the average supermarket. I love seeing these, especially as they have disappeared from Bangkok where they evolved into the infamous tuk-tuks, originally called motorized samlors but renamed because of the sound made by the two stroke engines which were a great help in contributing to the appalling level of pollution in Bangkok. Tuk-tuks now run on gas and cause much less damage to the environment. I used them when I came here on holiday but have only rarely been in one since coming to live here. Because they are a bit of a tourist attraction, I find they tend to be a relatively expensive option.





A Year in Bangkok – Drunk as Charged!

13 03 2011

Some drunks are aggressive. I, on the other hand, am a slobbering over-friendly drunk who thinks the whole world wants to cuddle him. In the early hours of a Sunday morning I was staggering home from the delightfully named Sin Bar, a rooftop bar in the city centre. As I passed one of the ‘entertainment plazas’ (a small area of go-go bars) I observed a tiny Thai guy using his kick boxing skills to severely damage three westerners who looked like professional rugby players. Goodness knows what they had done to cause offence but I have yet to see a westerner come out best in a street brawl. In my inebriated state it struck me that all they probably needed was a cuddle and a bit of love to sort things out so I resolved to go and talk with them. Fortunately, there was so much traffic on the street that I was unable to negotiate a safe crossing so I got a taxi home instead. It took me some time to remember where I lived and the driver was on the verge of throwing me out of his cab when the address came to me.

A little bit of love!

How did I get into this condition? Somebody I know got married on that day and I was fortunate enough to go to her wedding. These tend to be morning affairs although Ae’s extended until early afternoon. And what an interesting wedding it was. Her husband is called Gotchang, a name which really appealed to me as chang (as well as being the Thai word for elephant) is a brand of beer. I liked the name so much that I spent a few minutes dreaming up English equivalents – Gottaylorslandlord, Gottetleybitter, Gotfullerslondonpride and so on. He is Japanese and many of the guests there were Japanese and Ae is Thai. Japanese names are wonderful. I know one guy called O’Gucci and, when he introduced himself to me, he told me that his name means ‘big mouth’ in Japanese, adding that I would never forget that. He was right, I haven’t. Another friend is called Yumi, pronounced ‘yummy’ and there is a Japanese dental surgery near where I used to live with the wonderful name of Fuku – pronounced ‘foo koo’ of course.

It is the first time I have been to a Japanese style wedding and I was surprised to see Gotchang dressed in a very fetching floor length skirt in a sort of black and white checked pattern. Ae was also wearing a lovely dress. At least, it looked lovely from the front but when she turned to the side it was all I could do not to laugh – it was one of those traditional Japanese dresses with a huge bow at the back, making it look to me like she was carrying a back-pack. Asking why Gotchang was wearing a skirt, I learned that it was because he is samurai. I had no idea that they still existed.

A very fetching floor length skirt.

There were about a hundred and forty Japanese guests there, fifty nine Thai people and me. I am usually the only westerner at work but this was the first time I was aware of being the only Caucasian face at a social affair. All but one other at my table were Thai and I communicated by telling bad one-liners which the Thais love. I don’t think the Japanese guy at our table was so impressed though. The beer was free-flow and, as it flowed, my jokes got worse. A problem with drinking beer in a lot of Thai places is that you have absolutely no idea how much you are drinking because your glass is constantly being topped up as if it is a magic glass of beer which can never be emptied.

 

I found the speeches hilarious where employers and family members relate the bride and groom’s life histories, even giving their blood groups. One of the employers was bald but had a magnificent beard so I announced to the others on my table that he had his head on upside down which caused enough laughter to get us some funny looks. Suddenly, it was time for us to toast the bride and groom. We all stood up, raised our glasses and the Japanese majority shouted something which sounded like ‘yeuk’. The groom isn’t the most handsome man I’ve seen but I didn’t feel there was any need for that! When I expressed this view, the Japanese guy at our table told me it meant ‘good luck’.

 

There then followed a bad singer, more speeches, more free-flow beer and the bad singer again. The free-flow beer still flowed and I, rather foolishly considering the company, decided it was time to tell the joke about why Japanese men have slit eyes and buck teeth. The joke was highly appreciated by everybody at the table except the Japanese guy, who had been sensible enough to drink free-flow orange juice. Then we all stood up again to say ‘yeuk’ to the happy couple and it was over so we all went home. I had a short sleep before heading out again to meet a friend for more beer, hence my getting into something of a state and wanting to give those brawlers a cuddle.








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