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 – 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 – Road Trip to Krabi – Part 3

22 11 2010

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

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

Still beautiful in the rain.

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

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

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

The fossil beds looked like broken slabs of concrete.

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

Heading towards Railay Bay.

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

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

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

The Princess Cave,

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

A braver man than me!

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

Railay beach west.

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

Phileh Bay.

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

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

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

Beach on Bamboo Island.

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

Viking Cave.

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

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

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

End of the rain clouds.

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

Pool at the Long Beach Inn, Dolphin Bay.

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

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

A Year in Bangkok – Road Trip to Krabi – Part 2.

13 11 2010

Our first waterfall of this part of the drive.

Well, sorry for the long break in my blogging. Knowing I would be manically busy on our return to Bangkok, I took the laptop on holiday to try and keep up to date. In our Best Western hotel in Krabi, I plugged in and turned on, all the while waiting for the creative juices to start flowing. Suddenly, the air conditioner burped and the laptop made a kind of gentle popping noise. It was a power surge. The air con came back no problem but the laptop had just blown up, albeit rather quietly. I suspect that is because it is rather old and therefore didn’t want to make too much fuss about exploding. The hotel’s IT person had a look at it and declared it to be repairable but we had to wait until we got back to Bangkok to have that done – hence the long gap as I have indeed been busy.

...and a close-up of that waterfall.

We left Ranong quite late in the morning but that didn’t seem to be much of an issue as I thought we only had about three hundred kilometers to drive. We headed south on route 4 which was busy at first but we soon left the traffic behind as almost all of it headed across the country to pick up one of the main roads on the gulf coast side. We saw waterfalls, waterfalls and more waterfalls. Then we saw some waterfalls. Because of the massive amount of rain, we also saw run-offs which looked like waterfalls.

A distant buffalo herd.

We saw herds of buffalo, an increasingly rare sight here. And, as we got further south, we saw more and more participants in the week long vegetarian festival which is celebrated throughout Thailand but is celebrated spectacularly in the deep south. Actually, it’s nine days rather than a week and, for a vegetarian festival, you can see an awful lot of blood. I first witnessed this event in Phuket six years ago – just before the tsunami and it is truly mind boggling.

I'm about to be blessed by the spirit of a Taoist emperor god!

This takes place during the first nine days of the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar – in my limited experience that means October. It is the beginning of Taoist Lent and the nine Taoist emperor gods are brought to earth by mediums who act as hosts, entering into a trance state and making animal-like whimpering noises while they are posessed. I’m not sure what the whimpering noises represent but they seem to be an integral part of all this. They also move their heads slowly from side to side. While in this trance state, some pierce their cheeks with all manner of sharp pointy things like knives, spears and sharpened tree branches. Others beat their foreheads with axes producing torrents of blood which flow down their chests. And they abstain from eating meat – hence the name. The participants seem to be exclusively of Chinese origin.

...and now its the car's turn.

In one village, I stopped to photograph a group of them including three women who were possessed by the spirits of the emperor gods and received some sort of blessing. They then went on to bless the car. It worked too.

View from the roadside restaurant where we had lunch.

We had been driving along between the mountains and the coast and the road now took us back into the mountains. These mountains are called the Tenasserim and are basically a long granite ridge which is older than the Himalayas.

Optimistic sign at our lunch stop.

So far, we’d had rain showers and sunny periods but up in the mountains it rained. And it rained. The scenery was beautiful and moody but impossible to portray in a photograph. People had cut terraces into the mountains to use the land for agriculture and the road kept disappearing. Literally disappearing. The heavy rains this year have caused landslips in several parts of Thailand. I hadn’t thought of that when setting out on this trip but I was starting to think about it now.

It rained and it rained!

The first landslip we saw had taken away the crash barrier on the inside of a hairpin bend. Scary stuff. Then we came to another hairpin where the inside half of the road had gone. I didn’t look too hard at the massive drop as I was concentrating on staying on the bit of road which was left and also being immensely grateful to the spirit of the Taoist emperor god who had blessed the car a little earlier.Thankfully, it wasn’t long before we got back to a complete road. We found a lovely little roadside restaurant where we had a not so lovely lunch but, hey, the views were great!

We saw our first karst in the distance as we started to come down from the mountains.

Then, in the rain of course, we dropped down to Phangnga for our first view of the limestone karsts this area is famous for. What a pity I couldn’t take a photograph. Phangnga is ringed by karsts and is a beautiful sight. From there it was a straight forward drive to Ao Nang Bay just north of Krabi where we were booked in to a hotel for four nights. It had taken us about six hours to get here but we had made several stops so the actual driving wasn’t too long at all.

Home for the next four nights.

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