Christmas travel tree

The 8th of December had come and gone so it was safe to put up my Christmas tree. Never up before the 8th and always down by the 6th – that has been instilled in me since I was of an age to care. It’s not that I’m superstitious, but with the world currently so off-kilter, I’d prefer to fly below the radar and not draw any needless bad luck to my door. Some years, I don’t bother with a tree. It depends on how long I’ll be in country for. This is the first year in a while that the ROI made it worthwhile which means that I could pull out my box of goodies and start decorating my Christmas travel tree.

Many moves ago, faced with a plethora of tacky souvenirs from places I’d just passed through, I resolved that the only thing I would bring back from my travels would be a Christmas tree ornament or a silver charm for my travel bracelet (before it got full). This decision predates my travel blog so many of the places I’ve not written about. I keep a log to remind me where I was when I bought things that are not quite as obvious as my bear from Kodiak, my Eifel Tower from Paris, or my sloth from Costa Rica. I have a select few items that were gifts from special people and a series of fabulous hard-carved wooden ornaments from my good mate DD. I get a new one each year.

Himself helped with it all and as we picked through my treasures he held one up.

‘Where’s this from?’ he asked.

I looked at the black and white voodoo head. ‘New Orleans’, I said.

‘When were you there?’

I had to think hard to get my dates straight – that was the road trip I took in 2001 with my good mate RosaB from Alaska when we flew into New Orleans and then drove through Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia,  Tennessee, and back to Louisiana. It was a pre-blog trip, so much of what we saw is lost in the ethers of my mind. I was just driving to drive and see; she was on a pilgrimage to Graceland. I revisited again some 15 years later and had many flashbacks. One lasting memory is the generous tip she gave the woman from the voodoo shop in New Orleans who had given us a tour of the city’s cemeteries. I was shocked.

Honey, she said, the gal did good. We learned a lot.

That throwaway comment has shaped my guide-tipping culture to this day.

I have vague memories of detouring to follow a billboard proclaiming the virtues of Havana, Florida. It was the strangest place I’ve ever been. The few places open looked as if they’d been abandoned mid-meal. I remember a main street lined with barn-like antique shops staffed by one elderly man or woman, the handful of them the sum total of life in the town. As we wandered around, a little boy of about 6 or 7 darted in and out of doorways behind us, his muffled giggles the only sound we heard. We had intended stopping for lunch but we moved on. Northern Florida is still a place that I’d drive around rather than through. I googled it out of curiosity and was amazed to see it billed as one of the state’s friendliest towns. How the years can change a place.

‘Are you sure’, he asked, turning the ornament over. ‘The date says 1997.’

Okay. Okay. I’d left my log book in the city, so I’d been guessing. And I knew that trying to remember where I’d been in 1997 was going to keep me away all night.

As I placed each ornament on my Christmas travel tree, I stopped to think of where I’d been, who I’d been with, and when I’d been there. And with the factual stuff came a flurry of emotions. I thought how I’d be loathe to return to Azerbaijan but would get on a plane tomorrow to go back to Africa. I remembered how enamoured I was with Bulgaria and how disillusioned I was with what was happening in Cuba. I lost 10 minutes thinking of how my trip to Israel and Palestine had opened my eyes and as many more remembering multiple trips to India, a place I’ll someday live for a while.

We thought we’d get it done in half an hour. It took a lot longer. The desire to travel (and the wherewithal to do so) is one of the greatest gifts I’ve been given. Since I started blogging, I’ve been to about 40 different countries, some multiple times. My work trips account for just 2. I’ve a long way to go before I get to see them all, and may well die before I do. But I’ll give it my best shot.

Next year, when I’m putting up my Christmas travel tree, I’d like to see something from Albania, Russia, and Tanzania. And if that’s to happen, I need to make sure my feng shui travel shelf is in order. Did I tell you I wasn’t superstitious?

 

A mate of mine, on a short-term contract in Zagreb, visited us in the village last weekend.  I’d checked the trains and the direct one from Zagreb to Budapest passes through the next village. It should have been easy. It wasn’t. There was weekend trackwork and in the bus-train interchanges, something happened. They either got on the wrong train or didn’t realise the direct train wasn’t direct any more. Whatever.

I got a phone call to say they were in Izlaz, Croatia, when they should have been in Nagykanizsa, Hungary. The only way over the border by train was to go the whole way back to Zagreb and start again. Madness. So, we got in the car and drove to pick them up. They said they’d get the train to Virovitica or Kloštar Podravski so we checked the border crossings and decided to cross at Gola.

The drive was new to us and new territory is always good. We passed through Berzence, which has to be the Christmas tree capital of Hungary. Fields of them stood waiting to be chopped down and delivered to the cities and towns of Hungary in time for the big day. I wondered briefly how that had started. Had one chap tried his luck and when it caught on, everyone else baled in? The village dates back to the 1300s and if we do go back to get a tree, we’ll no doubt check out the Baroque Festetics House, which has to be related to the palace in Keszthely. There’s also a Roman Catholic Baroque church dating back to the 1700s, an eighteenth-century inn, and the ruins of Berzence castle. But we were on a mission.

When we got the border, there was one car ahead of us. We waited a couple of minutes to be called forward and then surrendered our passport cards and car registration papers. And then we sat. And sat. And sat. I noticed the fence – the famous fence along the 348 km (216 mi)  border between Hungary and Croatia that has divided the two countries since 17 October 2015. I’d not seen it before. And I was surprised at my reaction.

I’ve touted Hungary as a great place to live because of the easy access to the rest of Europe. In my mind’s eye, I had visions of a United States of Europe where you can nip from Hungary to Slovenia as easily as you can move from California to Arizona. My mental map didn’t have walls or fences. Okay, so there were checkpoints crossing over into Serbia and Ukraine, but that was only to be expected as neither one is in the EU, but Croatia? The Schengen schilling was slow to drop. Of course. Croatia is in the EU but not in the Schengen zone. Hence the delay.

We sat some more and finally yer man came out. The name on the car registration matched the name on the passport card and the photo on the passport card was of me. And I had already said that I owned the car. He asked me where I lived. I gave him the Budapest address that was on the car registration. But that wasn’t enough. I had to prove that I lived there. I dug in my wallet for my address. He checked it carefully. I got a distinct feeling that he wanted to create another obstacle but couldn’t come up with one. WTF! Since when has Croatia had a problem with Ireland? Has there been a spate of middle-aged Irish women nicking 15-year-old Hungarian cars and smuggling them across the border? Eventually, he gave me back my stuff and walked off. The barrier lifted and I drove through. In the rearview mirror, I noticed the couple behind me. He asked for their ID, had a quick chat, and then waved them through. They were in a Honda.

I couldn’t decide what I was feeling. Was it relief at being allowed out, or relief at being allowed in? At this stage, my mate, trying to be helpful, had gotten another train a few miles closer to the border – but to another border crossing. We finally connected in Kopřivnice, home to the Tatra truck company. Back in the days of Communism, the company payroll was 16 000 strong, about 1000 of which were Vietnamese. Today it’s about 3700. Once owned by a consortium which included Ronald Adams, the American who made his fortune selling graduation rings [FT has an interesting article on the takeover], it’s now owned by a Czech armourer [the things I learn when I blog!].

Anyway, we decided to go back into Hungary through Letenye, hoping that this busy crossing would be deserted on a Saturday afternoon. And it was. The Croatians barely glanced at our papers, delighted no doubt to see us leave. And the Hungarians didn’t seem that annoyed about letting us back in. Maybe three in a car is the magic number.

The experience set me wondering about borders and visas and how they affect my travel, however subconsciously. I would love to go to Russia but as the visa would cost more than the flight, I’m dithering. I’m very fond of India but again, as the visa can add significantly to the cost, I prefer to go there on someone else’s dime and tag on some personal days afterwards. Qatar recently added some 80 countries to its visa-free program but that in and of itself wouldn’t entice me back. Turkey’s convoluted system did my head in and would make me think twice about visiting Istanbul again. And while I, as an EU citizen, have the freedom to travel within its borders, Brexit might change all that for my UK friends, and apparently cost them more – a €7 charge to visit EU countries.  I wonder if I’ll be able to cross the Irish border and go to Belfast without having to show my passport? Amazing, really, to think that I never really appreciated freedom of movement until I began to see it dwindle.

[Note: Fence pictured is the one dividing Serbia and Hungary – I figured I’d had enough attention in Croatia – and they look the same.]

Doha camel

After our epic four-week trip through Thailand, we stopped off in Doha on the way home. We’d been invited to a birthday bash and never one to say no to a good party, it was a no-brainer. I’d been to Dubai a couple of lifetimes ago for a World Bank meeting and hadn’t been back to the Gulf since. I’d a fair idea what to expect – or I thought I did – but I’d forgotten more than I’d remembered.

Doha by night

Doha by night, Dhow harbour

Museum of Islamic Art Doha

Museum of Islamic Art Doha

Doha by night is spectacular. The view of the city from the Museum of Islamic Art is amazing. I was reminded of a night in New Jersey, way back when, looking across at the Manhattan Skyline. Nothing has come close until now. When H&N said they were taking us to the museum, I cringed a little. I’m not one for clay pots and bronze bowls or ornate gold jewellery. I more partial to my sculptures, my mosaics, and my paintings. And I was coming down off a prolonged spate of sensory overload. I didn’t think I had it in me to deliver the requisite mews of appreciation with any great conviction. But I surprised myself. It’s definitely worth visiting. Regardless of its exhibits, the building itself is nothing short of gobsmackingly simple. It has a definitely shush feel to it, big enough to be a cathedral but plain enough to leave religion outside. The architect, I. M. Pei (said to be the greatest living member of the modernist generation of architects), had hung up his liner pens and tracing paper and long-since retired. And, at the ripe age of 91, why wouldn’t he? But he came out of retirement to design this building. His name rang a bell. It took me a while to put him together with the glass-and-steel pyramid that I’d seen a couple of years back at the Louvre in Paris, another of his creations. Rumour has it that he spent six months travelling through the Muslim world to get a feel for this project. With an eye to the future and the lack of restraint and good judgement shown by many a city planner, Pei decided he wanted his the museum to sit on an island. So one was built. In Doha Bay. Off an artificial peninsula. At one end of the 7 km Doha Corniche. It’s open till 7 pm every evening and admission is free. You can’t leave Doha without visiting.

Doha

Doha

I was struck by the newness of everything. The Sheraton was the first hotel chain to build in the city, but now, everyone is there. With 88% of the 2.6 million inhabitants expats, the curious mix of cultures is evident in the architecture. And what you see by day (am thinking in particular of the Emir Palace) looks completely different lit up at night. The city’s electric bill must be huge. Be careful though, some areas are no-photo zones, so watch out for the signs. And the cameras. Nearly every streetlight has a camera attached to it. I don’t think I’ve ever been as conscious of being watched. And I doubt it’s something I could get used to. That said, there’s no crime to speak of in the city. It’s safer than safe to walk around. And why wouldn’t it be with your every move being recorded for posterity?

Having had the Muslim/alcohol experience in southern Thailand, I wasn’t expecting liquor shops on every corner, but I was completely flabbergasted when I found out that there is only one in the whole city! And to buy booze, you have to apply for a permit.  And your monthly alcohol spend will be capped at a percentage of your salary. Then you drive out to what was once the desert and is now a suburb in the desert and join the long line of customers waiting to be served. It was like Brown Thomas’s during the Christmas sales. Now, on the one hand, I can see how this would be good for me. I’d become a far more conscious imbiber of spirits. No more opening another bottle just because the weakness in me was strong. No more gulping it back as if it were going out of fashion. No more ‘one for the ditch after one for the road’. I’d be measuring my measures. In all likelihood, one of two things would happen. I’d lose the grá I have for vino or I’d become obsessed with where the next glass of plonk was coming from.

When we were kids, on long drives to see my grandparents, we’d count number plates, trying to check off each county in Ireland. I found myself doing something similar in Doha once I heard that the fewer digits on your plate, the more it’s worth. Another outward manifestation of wealth. I spotted one 3-digit plate on a big, posh, land-cruisery jeep, driven by two young princely looking lads; one four-digit plate; and a few five digits – but most were six-digit. And even then, pairs and triplets and sequences of numbers can attract big money. It’s not unheard of to see a  plate you fancy, then follow that person till they stop, and offer to buy their plate. In Doha, you can sell your plates and vehicle separately and some cars are bought for the plate alone. Mad.

Souq Waqif Doha

Photo: Heather Jacobs

We spent an evening at the Souq Waqif but didn’t do it justice. Jet lag has set in and we were seriously flagging. We ate – everything ordered for us, which took the pain out of making a decision (I just love their passion for food) – and we shopped. But having read up on it since, I want to go back, in the whole of my health, with energy and time to see it all. It’s the country’s oldest market and definitely one to be explored. The people watching alone is seriously rated. There’s so much going on, so much to see, you could sit with a coffee for hours and just watch the world go by. A tip worth noting though – go early in the week to avoid the crowds that descend from Thursday to Saturday.

We spent a morning in the desert, driving up and down sand dunes in a Land Cruiser. There were Land Cruisers everywhere, the cheapest of which will set you back a minimum of €50,000. The camels were on hand to give the tourists something to do as their drivers/guides let the air out of the tires to get ready for the dunes. And then it was into the desert to be bounced around and scared witless as your car rocked over a very steep slope and then went downhill, nose first. I wanted to drive. I so wanted to drive. In fact, driving in the desert (in someone else’s heavily insured rig) is now on my bucket list. I’d been on a desert safari in Dubai and remember the sand being quite uniform in colour. But in Doha, perhaps because of the unseasonably heavy rains/floods they’d just had, it was exquisite. So many different shades of greys and browns. It reminded me a lot of Michael Pettet’s digital art.

Doha

Doha Desert Safari

Doha Desert Safari

Doha Desert Safari

It was a little weird, looking across the water at Saudi Arabia, having just learned of the ongoing diplomatic standoff between the two countries. Where have I been? And then reading of Saudi’s plans to cut the country off – literally – by digging a 60km channel along the border. And then reading more about how close Qatar came to being invaded last year. Two hours, by all accounts, and the Saudi army could have been in Doha. That was close. It would seem that Qatar is bucking the trend.

From the onset of the crisis, the Saudi-led bloc cut diplomatic ties and hit Qatar with embargoes, including air land and maritime restrictions. They also deployed bot-fuelled hashtags and social media attacks. It was clear that the Saudis and their allies were not only targeting Qatar’s leadership, but also its institutions, citizens and residents. The Saudi-led bloc confronted Qatar with 13 demands, mostly focused on curtailing the Qatari approach to foreign policy, counter-terrorism and media freedom.

The image of the much-loved Emir is everywhere. And love him they do. The international jury is still out though. According to Human Rights Watch

Qatar’s penal code punishes “sodomy” with one to three years in prison. Muslims convicted of zina (sex outside of marriage) can be sentenced to flogging (if unmarried) or the death penalty (if married). Non-Muslims can be sentenced to imprisonment.

For the most part, those I met there seem to enjoy their lives. They like the money they make and the lifestyle it affords them. And there is something quite appealing about buffet dinners, long lunches, and fabulous shopping malls. The people and the diversity they represent is refreshing. Theirs is a very international set, with, I think, 12 nationalities at the house party we attended. You wouldn’t be long getting first-hand accounts from most of the world – the best form of social media. Everyone is so hospitable, so friendly, so generous. Customer service is incredible. But I couldn’t live there. My latent streak of paranoia would get fat of a diet of societal norms that wouldn’t sit well me with. You’d acclimatise, they said. You’d get used to it. But the question is, would I want to?

Interesting articles

10 things to do in Souq Waqif, according to CNN Travel.

More on I. M. Pei

Drinking (or not) in Doha

Human Rights Watch World Report Qatar 2018

More photos available on the Any Excuse to Travel Facebook Page – check us out.

 

After four weeks of travelling in Thailand, I’m in a much better position to comment than I was when I wrote of my Thai expectations.  I was looking forward to the newness, the un-Europeanness, the un-Americanness. I was looking for something different. And yes, I found it. But in that newness, there was also a sameness. Anyway, I thought I might save you some angst and share with you my travel tips for Thailand.

Travel tips for Thailand – Bangkok

  • Do your homework. Read up on the scams in Bangkok before you go so that you’re ready and able for sneakiness shrouded in helpfulness. If a lovely local stops you on the street and asks if they can help and then tells you that wherever it is you’re going to is closed because of a Buddhist holiday… run.
  • Upload GRAB to your phone. This Thai equivalent of Uber works in Bangkok and up north. You get the option to charge or pay cash. Even if you never use it, it’ll give you a ball-park figure for the taxi ride you’re planning on taking. We used a GRAB to get from Bangkok DM airport to Kanchanaburi as the train/bus option would have taken forever. If you value your time, GRAB is the way to go. Be prepared to pay toll charges in addition to the fare.
  • Use metered taxis – they’re by far the cheapest way to travel in Bangkok. But make sure the meter is set to 35 baht when you start out and then confirm with the driver that they will use a meter.
  • Avoid TukTuks or use one for a short journey if you fancy the experience. As in Bangalore, many are in cahoots with local traders and you’ll find yourself hijacked and at their mercy.
  • Try the street food but choose your own – don’t just ask for chicken or you’ll likely end up with skewers of chicken livers. Point and smile.
  • Pick your temples. There are so many that it’s easy to succumb to sensory overload.
  • While in Bangkok, venture down Susie Q walking street to the street that runs parallel to Khao San Road – less populated, with better food and drinks.
  • If you plan on entering and leaving Thailand from Bangkok, you may be able to leave some stuff you thought you’d need but don’t or even the winter clothes you wore in. Pack them separately and leave them at the hotel for collection when you return. It’ll save you lugging them around.

Travel tips for Thailand – General

  • Learn how to say please and thank you, hello and goodbye – politeness is big.
  • Bring earplugs – not for the noisy lot in the room next door, but for the bullfrogs that come out in full volume in the monsoon rains.
  • Book train tickets well in advance or you’ll end up stuck in 3rd class or standing.
  • If you’re travelling by plane internally, use Bangkok Airways at least once, just for the experience. Loads of room. Tasty food. VIP lounge for all passengers. Loved it.
  • Take the time to talk to some monks. You’ll see them everywhere in Bangkok and Northern Thailand. Not so much down south. Don’t ever sit in seats reserved for them. The inevitable ejection is embarrassing (and no, I didn’t but I saw it happen).
  • Pack lightly – but be sure to have clothes that cover your knees and shoulders if you plan to visit temples. Wear slip-on shoes or sandals – undoing and redoing laces is a pain.
  • Pretty much everything gets cheaper as you move from Phuket and Krabi to Bangkok to Chiang Mai.
  • For regional travel up north, use Green Bus.
  • Everywhere other than the Post Office charges 20 baht for stamps. The Post Office charges 15 baht – the additional 5 baht is a standard handling fee. Just sayin’.
  • Shop around for currency exchange. Check a few places and use the one with the narrowest spread between the buy and sell rate. Downstairs in SUV airport in Bangkok, near the Skytrain, is where I saw the best rate. But as it was still in the airport, I didn’t expect it so passed it by.
  • Thailand doesn’t do diet – so no light or sugar-free sodas.
  • Sangsom is not a whisky (even though it’s what you’ll get if you ask for a Thai whisky) – it’s a rum.
  • ‘Maybe tomorrow’ works better than just saying no!
  • Avoid PDAs, especially if you’re down south.
  • Do at least one cooking course… it’s a great way to have dinner.
  • Check your travel insurance – most policies won’t cover motorbike accidents in Thailand.
  • Reduce your fluid intake before you travel by train unless you’re travelling 1st or 2nd class. If you’re not, pack a handkerchief liberally sprayed with perfume or bring some menthol lip balm to rub beneath your nose.
  • Before a massage, do some squats to rid yourself of any excess wind that could pop out later.
  • Read up on the malaria situation – am not at all convinced that we needed to take (very expensive) malaria tablets.

Am I glad I went? Yes. I am glad to be leaving? Yes. Did I get the difference I was looking for? Yes. Would I do it again? Not sure.

No, that’s not true. I’d definitely go back to visit my friends in Chiang Rai and maybe check out Laos and Myanmar while I’m up there. If I went again, I’d spend more time in the mountains and less time at the beach. although I could do a month on an island if I had my own kitchen. Next time though, I’d be smarter, surer, and better prepared for that difference I craved. This time, it took a lot out of me.

Beach in Thailand

I asked for quiet. For peace. For empty beaches and fresh nice food. I asked for local cooking, small bars, and good coffee. I asked for sunsets and sunrises and a door that opened to the sea. They said the quiet was impossible. Not in Thailand. Never in Thailand. Everywhere has people. Everywhere is crowded. Everywhere is popular. I was hrummphed on a number of travel forums when I asked for suggestions. But himself found it. Koh Yao Noi.

Little Yao Island sits beside its neighbour Koh Yao Yai. It’s predominately Muslim, turning the country’s religious stats on their head. Some 96% are Muslim, which goes a long way towards explaining the quiet. Even though it was off-season, there was little evidence of clubs or party hangouts. Quite a number of restaurants (Muslim-run) don’t serve alcohol. And when you do find a shop selling the hard stuff (Green Coffee House has a few bottles, and a liquor store beside the mini-mart about 100 m beyond 7 Eleven on the opposite side of the road has a good selection), you get it wrapped in a black bag. I’m partial to a sundowner, especially on my hols. And I could only have one each evening, as the concept of diet soda hasn’t hit Thailand – it’s full fat or nothing. That’s the choice you get.

We stayed at Kao Yao Seaview Bungalows, arriving way before check-in and a day early after a long, long train journey from Kanchanaburi. All the bungalows bar one were wooden houses on stilts, with lovely verandahs. The one we’d booked was the only cement building in the place, no stilts but a patio. I wasn’t at all impressed. Admittedly I was running on empty and crankier than a teething toddler and I did apologise for my grumpiness the next day when sleep had restored some semblance of sanity. In hindsight though, it was the way to go. Marble floors are so much cooler than wooden ones. And it was hot.

Koh Yao Noi sunrise

Koh Yao Noi sunrise

Koh Yao Noi sunrise


Our days took on a sameness, a routine of sorts. Up to watch the sunrise. Well, I got up once at 6am and was on alert for the rest of the week should a clear, cloudless morning happen (but it didn’t). Then a couple of hours work. Then off on the bike to Pasai Beach for a mango roti brunch and maybe a Thai massage. Then we’d go for a swim or drive down some side road to see what was at the end. We found floating fish farms. We found Muslim fishing villages deep in the mangrove swamps. We found mosques that had been built for a while and more that were in the process of being built. And we didn’t find one Buddhist temple. It couldn’t be more different from what we’d seen so far.

Koh Yao Noi fishing village

Fishing village

Koh Yao Noi mangrove swamp

Mangrove swamp

Koh Yao Noi Rice Field

Rice paddy

 

Pasai Beach Koh Yao Noi

Rubber Tree Koh Yao Noi

Rubber tree

Of course, being an island, everything is more expensive. The market village offers the usual clothes and bags and bangles that appeal to the backpacking brigade at three times the prices as in Chiang Mai. Massages run to 400 baht an hour compared to 150 in Chiang Rai or 250 in Bangkok. That said, had we only come to Phuket and then hit the islands, I probably wouldn’t even comment. I’d have known no different. But I’m glad we went further afield.  There is far more to this country than Krabi or Phuket. Far more to it than beaches and bars. Far more to it than cheap resorts and expensive spas.

I had plans to go over to Krabi or Phuket for the day but I never mustered up the energy needed to get there. We did go on a boat trip around the islands one day, sharing our boat with a young lad from Valencia, Spain, over here for the last six years teaching English in Bangkok, and his friend from the Philippines, a qualified nurse now also teaching English in the city. It was great to be on the water but landing on the islands was mad. All the boats were doing the same tour. We saw the same people at each stop. We were lucky in that it was off-season – it has to be crazy altogether in December. Himself would go off exploring. I’d amuse myself by taking photos of people posing for their Instagram snap or working on the perfect selfie. We’d been picked up by a songthaw – a motorbike with a crate-on-wheels attached to it and taken to the far end of the island to catch the long-tail boat. On the way back, we hit low tide, so he anchored a couple of hundred metres off our beach and dropped us into the water. We waded home.

I’ll admit to being a little discomfited by being so obviously white and non-Muslim. I made sure none of my bits was bared but even so, it felt strange. Hearing the call to prayer as I lay, half-naked, sunbathing on a beach was a little surreal. Having to search so hard for a naggin of whisky or rum made it taste better than local hooch has a right to be. Being in Thailand and not seeing one Buddha was disconcerting and disorienting.

Himself loved it. It played to his vision of retiring to a shack on a beach. He’s planning on two months next time. Off-season. Maybe October and November. Me? I’d last a month at most, and then only if I had my own kitchen. While the novelty of eating out (or being cooked for) has a lot to be said for it, when I do it every day, week on week, it loses its appeal.

Last summer, when P&R came to visit after their Danube cruise, P talked of craving normalcy. I get that. Completely. We’re nearing the end of the trip, currently on our way back to Bangkok and then to Doha. And it’s been quite the experience.  sensory overload. I’ve run out of bandwidth for new; I’m craving sameness and KFC. And I’m missing my kitchen.

Thirty, or even twenty years ago, had you offered me the chance to travel the world for 12 months, I’d have leap-frogged a litany of lit candles to get to the top of the queue. Don’t get me wrong. I like to travel. I like that I can work from wherever I go, as long as I have Internet. I like seeing new places and doing new things. But I need some contrast, some downtime, some normalcy. Otherwise, it all becomes a blur of braggadocio, with pixelating placenames and conversations starting with ‘Where was it that….’

Getting to Koh Yao Noi

Take the ferry from Thalane Pier outside Krabi to ThaKow Pier on Koh Yah Noi or a speedboat or long-tail (cheaper) from Ban Rong in Phuket to Manoh Pier on the island. Last ferry from Phuket runs at 4pm.

Koh Yao Noi

Finding food, booze, and coffee on Koh Yao Noi

Pan’s Local Food is a winner – we went twice. Very fresh. And they do a decent local rum and coke. Ciao Bella on Pasai Beach is Italian run… they do great roti. Charlie Bar is the place to go for cocktails – JJ makes a mean Margarita. And from there you can order food from Chef Aon at Koh Yao Bistro, next door. At the high end of the island’s offer but delicious. The restaurant at Kah Yao Seaview Bungalows serves bigger-than-usual portions of fresh food, too, especially for breakfast. The best Morning Glory we had was at Thakhao Bay View. This amazing Thai vegetable is like a water spinach and it’s delicious.  They also do the best coffee we found on the island and had just opened the roadside Sala Café at the bottom of their steps. We got in on a TV shoot with a famous Thai actress Nam Wham – background shot, of course, but amusing to see the locals go a little crazy. The Green Coffee Shop comes a close second for hot coffees and the Garden Café does a great iced coffee.

Koh Yao Noi

We caught the early morning speedboat and then had breakfast near Phuket. I watched as a monkey ran into the café and helped himself to a bag of nuts. Who needs TV in Thailand. Bangkok Airways is a dream to fly with – a lounge for all passengers – imagine. We have a couple of nights to go in Thailand and then it’s off to Qatar. Am hoping that the city behaves itself and that it being my second time to bumble around Bangkok, I’ll be more familiar with it all. I really don’t want to have to fight with it again.

Travelling by train in Thailand

I’ve learned a lot about travelling by train in Thailand. After leaving it so late to book train tickets to Surat Thani and facing an overnight trip in third class, I wasn’t leaving anything to chance. We’d heard that the last bus to Ban Pong was around 4 pm so, to be sure to be sure, we caught one around 1 pm. That got us to the station in Ban Pong, the city of nice people, some five hours before our train was scheduled to depart. We didn’t see one other tourist. And without tourists, there’s little call for a left-luggage facility. I wasn’t in any mood to explore. I was dreading the 10-hour trip ahead of us and was slowly working myself up to high doh on the anxiety scale. When himself went to wander, I waited nervously, imagining what I’d do if he didn’t come back. This wasn’t me. This isn’t me. What was going on?

Travelling by train in Thailand Ban Pong

We chose to walk from the bus station to the train station and see some of the town. I bought cigarettes. We stopped for coffee. I went to get my cigarettes and couldn’t find them. Sure they’d fallen out of my pocket, I retraced my steps in the blistering heat providing something that passed for amusement for the local traders as I weaved through their stalls. Arriving back at the 7 Eleven sans fags, I bought some more. The young chap mentally assured himself that his mother was right – farangs are crazy. Returning to the coffee shop, I kept searching, eyes everywhere, more than conscious of the looks I was getting. I was the only farang in sight and I wasn’t exactly behaving normally.

Back at the café, I remembered that I’d put the fags into the side strap pocket of my backpack. I’d had them all the time. It was confirmation that the heat or the stress or the country was getting to me. I felt like I was losing it. Himself, well used to this part of the world, assured me that I was simply struggling with not having a routine. But I don’t have a routine at home, I wailed. I should be better at this.

At the station, we joined the throng of passengers waiting for their trains. I double checked the tickets with the ticket agent and he pointed out that we were travelling in third class. Yep, I’d gotten that. Our carriage, carriage No. 10, would be way down the tracks, a good 100 meters from the station. When it arrived. It was running late. Our five-hour wait turned to six.  I contemplated getting up on the large scales by the freight office to see if I’d lost weight  – anything to cheer me up – but then I noticed it only went to 70 kg.  Were it not for the lovely young woman who owned and ran the restaurant next door, I’d have dissolved in a puddle of sweat-ridden hysteria. She let us stay the whole time beneath her fan. We ate. We coffeed. We chatted. And then finally it was time to leave.

Travelling by train in Thailand

Our carriage was full to capacity except for the section clearly reserved for monks and the disabled. We didn’t qualify and some of those sitting there didn’t look as if they did either. Three people were sitting in our two seats. I hovered, uncertain as to what to do. The woman asked to see my ticket and when she saw we had the seats booked, she moved. No problem. No fuss. There was no place for our backpacks. There was barely room to turn around. A lovely man removed his sack of rice from overhead and put it under his seat so that we could put one bag there. He pointed helpfully across the narrow aisle to another spot we could make use of. Sawadee Ka. We were set.

The windows on both sides were wide open and the ceiling fans were racing. I was sitting in a draught. Years of childhood warnings came flooding back. Images of aunts long dead tutting their disaproval came to mind. I’d be sick for a month, they said. But I wasn’t about to close the window and incur the wrath of my fellow passengers just minutes after getting on the train. Instead, I tied a handkerchief around my head to block my ears. God only knows what I looked like. But I didn’t care. I looked white. Very white. I couldn’t look more different. All the skin-whitening cream in Thailand couldn’t have brought anyone in that carriage even close. Later, when it started raining, the young girl opposite me did the honors. We were getting soaked.

Travelling by train in Thailand

No one was talking. Couples, families, young, old, all stared ahead or down at their phones. Some attempted to sleep, bodies contorted as they tried to get comfortable on seats designed to be anything but. The chap opposite us had shrouded his head in a scarf anchoring it with a baseball cap. Every so often, when we slowed down, he’d peek out to check where we were. Hawkers moved through the narrow aisles selling food and drink. They got little by way of custom. It was too soon. I wished I’d learned how to meditate.

The ticket inspector was surprised to see us. Farangs, he must have thought, going native or too cheap to go first class. I smiled as if I did this every day. I imagined that I saw some approval in the eyes of the others as they silently commended us for sitting amongst them, for not separating ourselves. Then I gave myself a good talking to. FFS, Mary, get off the stage. This is how normal people go travelling by train in Thailand. Get a grip. It’s an experience. Go with it. Quit your bitching. It’s 10 hours, not a lifetime.

At 20:50 we pulled into Ratchaburi. People got off, others got on. The smell of fried noodles and chilis saturated the air. People went about their evening. Nothing unusual. I thought of all we’d seen and done in the last three weeks. The conmen in Bangkok. The temples in Ayutthaya. The women prisoners in Chiang Mai. The opium dealers in the Golden Triangle. Getting to see Laos from a distance from Phu Chi Fa. Experiencing Buddha Day in Chiang Rai. Listening to POWs by the River Kwai. I’d come in search of different and I’d found it. An older lady opposite me was asleep, her head thrown back, face towards the belting breeze as if sunbathing. I wanted to be her. I wanted to sleep.

At 21:30 we arrived in Petchaburi. In the distance, I could see what looked like massive resort hotels. We were on the coast, the coast that had prompted us to take this trip, only not at night. I could see as far as the edge of light and no further but I could imagine it. I thought I caught a whiff of sea air, but I was raving.

At 22.30, in Hua Hin, the mother and daughter sitting opposite us left. We could stretch out. The young lad they left behind immediately stretched the length of the seat and went back to sleep. He didn’t look Thai. More Indian. When he was awake, he read an English workbook, a chapter on English language proficiency in Thailand. He took notes. He seemed excited. Perhaps he was starting a new job teaching English. He didn’t speak to us. He didn’t look at us. He never once engaged. Every now and then he’d crowd over the four sitting across the aisle and without as much as an ‘Excuse me’ leaned out their window and spat. Or took a photo. Of the dark. Who needed a TV?

Other towns and cities whizzed by. Sometimes we stopped. Other times we didn’t. At 00:55 we pulled into Bank Rut and took on a new tide of hawkers who, completely oblivious to those trying to sleep, shouted their offer as they made their way through the carriages. I wasn’t confident enough to tell chicken from beef or pork or be certain of what they were selling. But I didn’t want to eat or drink. I wasn’t tempting fate. I didn’t want to have to use the loo. In third class, it had to be a squat and my sense of balance ain’t great at the best of times. I said a silent prayer to the urinary gods that I wouldn’t need to use the facilities. The waft of something more than noodles was seeping through the air.  My gag reflexes were already being tested by the Indian chap as his spitting turned to hocking. They couldn’t take much more.

At 03:15, when we arrived in Chumporn, I saw bodies asleep on benches in the station. Travellers? Locals? Hard to tell. I tried to sleep but couldn’t. I tried to read but kept losing my place. I squirmed like a three-year-old trying to get comfortable on a church pew. I stood. I sat. I stretched. I stood again. Less than three hours to go.

When we left Chaiya, the penultimate stop on our epic trip, I started to mentally prepare for what was ahead. It wasn’t over. We had to get from Surat Thani to Thalane pier near Krabi and then by boat to our island, Koh Yao Noi. I had an hour to ready myself, to adjust my frame of mind to will the universe and plead with my God to make it happen, without incident. I was beyond tired.

We were the only farangs to get out in Surat Thani. But soon, others made their way to the train station, coming from hotels or the bus terminus, perhaps. It was early. About 06:30. We were hounded by touts offering bus trips to Krabi. But from there we’d have to double back to Thalane Pier to catch the boat. And it would take hours that way. We’d saved a fortune by travelling third class instead of flying and remembering what the inimitable JN always says – taxis are just another form of public transport – we took a cab. The tout, when we told him what we were planning, immediately offered us a better car at a better price but I’d had enough of being railroaded. I was tired of the aggressive sell. We’d pay more to the old guy at the taxi rank driving the battered Mercedes. He had to make a living, too.

We got to the pier five minutes before the ferry was due to leave. I’d been up more than 24 hours at this stage and was ready for bed. And it was just about time for breakfast.

 

 

 

Bumper Cars

Our second night in Kanchanaburi. I’d busted my foot jumping from a height to catch sight of the train looming down the death railway, so I decided to stay put. Himself was itching to get out – probably away from me, if the truth be told – so he went wandering. He did what he usually does and followed the music. This is what he found.

 

In Thailand, as in much of Southeast Asia, daily life follows a pattern. Get up at dawn, work till it gets too hot, then take a long break, if possible sleeping next to a fan. Starting at about sunset, the best part of the day slowly begins. People wake up. The streets come alive with streetfood vendors selling fried and barbequed chicken and pork parts, fish, bananas, and many others that you can’t identify, and in some cases, things you don’t want to identify. Roasted scorpions for example.

Many towns in Thailand go beyond street food and have night markets or bazaars. We were staying on a riverfront floating house in Kanchanaburi near the infamous Bridge on the River Kwai, part of the Death Railroad built by Allied prisoners of war and forced Thai and Burmese labourers during World War II.

Kanchanaburi River Kwai

Kanchanaburi train

We had spent the day riding on the train, visiting Hellfire Pass, war cemeteries, and museums. It was getting late, and I was a bit hungry, so I decided to take a walk and see what I could find. I walked toward the sound of blaring music, which I presumed was coming from a noisy nightclub. Instead I stumbled upon what was by some way the best Night Market I had seen in Thailand. The first part looked like a carnival, complete with a Ferris wheel, bumper cars, merry-go-round, and other children’s rides.

Bumper Cars kanchanaburi night market

Bumper Cars

Ferris Wheel  kanchanaburi night market

A really touching scene was an area where there were about 20 child-sized tables with mums and dads sitting with their children painting with watercolours.

Future Artists  kanchanaburi night market

Future Artists

And yes there was a big stage with a live band playing and singing for all they were worth. Noisy and loud, but it added to the family atmosphere.

Then there was the night market itself. It sprawled in several directions. One covered aisle must have been a half kilometer long. Hundreds of stalls and shops. They sold everything and anything.

Market Stalls  kanchanaburi night market

Market Stalls

Food of course, and clothes and housewares and eyeglasses and automotive parts and shoes and dishes and cleaning supplies and mobile phones and phone covers and local handicrafts and…

 kanchanaburi night market

 kanchanaburi night market

 kanchanaburi night market

…stunning locally made furniture…

…and a sprawling area of garden shops.

Garden Shops  kanchanaburi night market

Garden Shops

I still don’t know if what I stumbled on was something like a State Fair, or if this night market is a permanent feature of life in Kanchanaburi. But if you’re near the Bridge train station in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, of an evening, and you hear some blaring music, head towards the sound. You’re in for a treat!

 

Death Railway Kanchanaburi

Although nearly three weeks in Thailand, I’m still shackled by Western expectations. The first thing we did when we arrived in Kanchanaburi on Wednesday was head to the train station to book tickets to Surat Thani for Friday morning.

Two tickets to Surat Thani, please. Second class. Aircon. With seat reservations. On the 9.35. On Friday, says I, not for a minute thinking that he’d do anything but smile politely and hand them over. Instead, he laughed.

Friday? All trains full, he said. Saturday, too. And Sunday.

He showed me the screen. Our only option was to travel overnight in third class with no aircon. We’d have to catch a bus to Ban Pong from Kanchanaburi and then catch the evening train from there, arriving in Surat Thani at around 6 am on Saturday morning. We could, of course, have gone back to Bangkok and paid more than we were prepared to pay to fly (internal flights are pretty cheap in advance; not so cheap last minute). So, we chalked that one up to experience and decided to travel as the locals do. In the meantime, we had a full day to putt around and see what we’d come to see: the Death Railway.

The Burma Railway, also known as the Death Railway, the Siam–Burma Railway, the Thai–Burma Railway and similar names, was a 415-kilometre railway between Ban Pong, Thailand, and Thanbyuzayat, Burma, built by the Empire of Japan in 1943 to support its forces in the Burma campaign of World War II.

Remember the movie, Bridge on the River Kwai (that was Bridge No. 277)? We could’ve seen that from our raft, had we not upgraded to a better raft – with aircon. I know my limitations and himself would like to get home alive. Anyway, the movie was filmed in Ceylon, not in Thailand, and the jury is still out regarding how well it tells the story – but it lays the basis.

At 5.30 am the following morning, we joined what looked like a Thai women’s group on the platform near the Bridge on the River Kwai in Kanchanaburi and took the train to Nam Tok. These ladies, all in their early 60s, put the kids to shame when it came to selfies and giggles and boisterous behaviour. When they weren’t checking out the selfies, they provided in-carriage entertainment for the next couple of hours. I’d been looking forward to the train journey for months. I’d read all sorts of blog accounts that made it sound spectacular and terrifying. And perhaps, had we come straight from Bangkok, I would have been more wowed. But after Phu Chi Fa, not so much. Yes, it was spectacular but more because of what it is than what you see. That this was built by prisoners of war in such a short period of time with very little by way of materials and tools, is quite something. And in that heat and humidity?

Riding the Death Railway at Kanchanaburi

Kanchanaburi Death Railway

Kanchanaburi Murray Griffin POW

Drawing by Murray Griffin, a POW

Hellfire Pass (Chong Khao Kad) Museum

When we arrived in Nam Tok, we were assailed by songthaew drivers offering guided tours and all sorts. We just wanted coffee. We went with Bai who recognised our immediate need and understood and took us to the 7 Eleven. It’s mad to see these dotted around the country in the most unlikely of places but they do decent coffee. From there we went up to Hellfire Pass (Chong Khao Kad), a 500-metre cutting hewn out of the rock by allied POWs in just six months in 1943. The museum works on a donation basis and offers headsets with an audio tour. As we wandered through the trail, we listed to Australian POWs, some of whom are still alive, give an account of their time there. It was quite something. All of them, without exception, were still looking for the humour in it all. The accounts were horrendous. Life must have been unbearable. And yet they still marvelled at the scenery, the birds, the flowers. They remembered the sunsets, the teak forests, the dawn chorus. And they came back. On Anzac Day each year, a dawn vigil marks the work done and remembers the thousands who died making it happen. The Hellfire Pass Museum was under renovation so not all the trails were open and the main museum was closed. But still, it was so worth the hike. For some weird reason, I felt inordinately proud of those boys, for getting through the ordeal and still managing to see the beauty of the place.

Kanchanaburi Hellfire Pass

Kanchanaburi Hellfire Pass

Kanchanaburi Hellfire Pass

Sai Yok Noi waterfall

The main attraction of the Sai Yok national park in the Tenasserim Hills, the waterfall provided much relief from the darkness and horror of Hellfire Pass. October is a school holiday in Thailand. The kids were out playing in the water. Innertubes bobbed around. Families picnicked. Restaurants and cafés did a steady trade as the locals and holidaymakers alike made the most of it. As it’s closer to the railway station, most people stop here first. I’m glad we didn’t. I needed to decompress. I could still hear the voices of those Australian soldiers in my head and was still battling with how they managed to cope with it all and stay alive. I needed some levity.

Sai Yok Waterfall Kanchanaburi

Sai Yok Waterfall Kanchanaburi

Krasae Cave

On our way back to Kanchanaburi, Boi detoured and took us to see Krasae Cave. We’d driven right past it on the way up on the train. It sits just off the edge of the tracks and back in 1943 would have been where the POWs rested if they’d been given a chance to rest. Today, it’s a shrine and for Thai people, it’s more of a commemoration than the Hellfire Pass memorial. After navigating a series of traders, and more colourful Asian ladies who really know how to style it, we found the cave inside which a large Buddha reigns supreme. A large notice board has fortunes printed in both English and Thai. I watched as a couple of Thai tourists shook out their sticks and checked what was in store for them. When I tried, a family sitting across the other side of the altar, laughed and shouted over instructions. Although Buddha was present, it seemed that the energy in this particular cave temple was more lighthearted than in the cities.

From here, we could walk the tracks, see the trestles up close, and marvel once again at this feat of engineering. Why it isn’t one of the wonders of the world, I don’t know. The second of the two daily trains came through as we were there. It didn’t take a lot of imagination to go back in time and hear the clink-clink of hammer on chisel. The tourists hanging from the windows taking selfies seemed strangely oblivious to it all. I wondered if they realised just what had gone into building these tracks.

As an American engineer said after viewing the project:

What makes this an engineering feat is the totality of it, the accumulation of factors. The total length of miles, the total number of bridges — over 600, including six to eight long-span bridges — the total number of people who were involved (one-quarter of a million), the very short time in which they managed to accomplish it, and the extreme conditions they accomplished it under. They had very little transportation to get stuff to and from the workers, they had almost no medication, they couldn’t get food let alone materials, they had no tools to work with except for basic things like spades and hammers, and they worked in extremely difficult conditions — in the jungle with its heat and humidity. All of that makes this railway an extraordinary accomplishment.

Kanchanaburi Stylish Lady

Death Railway Kanchanaburi

Death Railway Kanchanaburi

Death Railway Kanchanaburi

Kanchanaburi proper

Later that afternoon, back in Kanchanaburi, we visited the War Cemetery to pay our respects. We missed out on the Chungkai Cemetery, started by the POWs themselves in the camp. But we did get to see the Chinese Cemetery, lying next door to the Allied one; it’s everything the other one isn’t. The haphazard mix of Chinese burial mounds and Thai chedi reliquaries gives it a Disneyworld feel. Definitely one to visit if you’re in town.

We were staying on a raft house on the river. Each time a boat passed, our place rocked. The party boats that travelled up and down the river with revellers put paid to any thoughts of an early night. The bars along Mae Nam Kwae Road would give Khaosan Road a run for its money. It’s here the backpackers and expats gravitate. There was a healthy measure of older British men with young Thai wives (?) and some restaurants and bars that seemed to cater just for well-dressed Thai men.

Raft house Kanchanaburi

We ate one afternoon at Mangosteen Café and Books sharing a platter of local specialities (including the famed Issan sausage) and enjoying every morsel. I’ve been impressed with the English-language book offer in Thailand. Everywhere we’ve been has had a least one large bookstore – Kanchanaburi has at least two. But it wasn’t until the next day, as we were driving to the bus station, that we saw how big the town really is. There’s a whole other side of it that’s not remotely touristy, alive with market traders, the sing-song waves of conversations soothing the scented air.

Mae Nam Kwae Road Kanchanaburi

Thankfully we noticed that our lovely helpful ticket seller had sold us train tickets leaving from Nakhon Pathon and not Ban Pong. So after a quick diversion to get that changed and a heart-stopping few minutes thinking we might have to up the line to come all the way back, we were sorted (same guy and he didn’t bat an eyelid).

We caught a local bus to Ban Pong. Quite the experience. The massive steering wheel was chest-high on the driver and the gear stick was level with his ear. We had five hours at the station to wait for our train.

There’s been lots of waiting in Thailand. Time seems to have a different meaning. No one is any great rush anywhere. The country has one massive ‘ish’ after every entry on every timetable. I’m Irish. I should be used to it, I know.

Bridge on the River Kwai Kanchanaburi

Bridge on the River Kwai – the river was renamed after the movie came out as there was no bridge on the River Khwae. But this one spanned the nearby Mae Klong. Cleverly, the Thais renamed this stretch the Khwae Yai (Big Khwae), and the original Khwae became Khwae Noi (Little Khwae).

Party Boat Kanchanaburi

Some interesting articles

An excellent guide to what’s where in Kanchanaburi relating to the war.

Excellent article in the New York Times about the contrast in commemorating the Asian dead and the Allied dead.

Chiang Rai White Temple Hands

Our bus trip from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai passed without incident …. until I spotted my mate through the window at the terminus, jumped off, and left my camera behind me. So excited at the thoughts of seeing him after a gap of 17 years, I lost the run of myself. We were on the road home before I noticed. What was to be a peaceful, trouble-free week hadn’t started off too well. But the girl on the ticket desk was very helpful. She made a few calls, and told me to come back in a hour. When I did, I’d be reunited with my camera. I’d been pretty ticked off when himself had left his phone on the steps of Wat Arun and hadn’t noticed till we’d crossed the river and disembarked the ferry. Thanks to a chap we’d bought a painting from and the auspices of a good monk, he got it back. But now it was my turn. On the double.

We stayed with our friends on the fab Santi Buri golf course, ’cause that’s where they live. P gave me cooking lessons – she cooked and I took copious notes. S took me golfing (the first time I’ve played 9 holes in twice as many years – I can still get the distance but I’m still crap around the green). We daytripped to the Golden Triangle and Phu Chi Fa. We had a body-crushing 2-hour Thai massage in a temple. [I had to bite my knuckle to keep from crying and am getting worried that I might be getting a little into pain :-)] And when we weren’t hanging out by the pool catching up, we visited the sights.

Wat Rong Khun, aka the White Temple, Chiang Rai

Wat Rong Khun, better known among foreigners as the White Temple, is something to behold. Think Guadi meets Kahlo, or Frozen meets The Addams Family, and you might get some hint as to what to expect. If you pay attention, you’ll find contemporary characters like Spiderman, famous people like Michael Jackson and superbrands like Hello Kitty mixed in with the demons and  flames. As temples go, this one is a baby. Opened to visitors in 1997, it’s really an art exhibit giving a nod to the Buddhist Temple genre. It’s designed, constructed, and owned by Chalermchai Kositpipat, who says of himself:

I am simply a painter, who shares this world of ours, as a small unit in human society, paying my due and hoping to contribute by a small measure to the planet earth. I intend to remain a painter for the cause of Buddhism until the last day of my life. Nothing can ever change me or divert me from this course, not fame, nor contempt.

This evolving work of art is mind-bogglingly brilliant. Kositpipat has another 120 or so people working with him. Some of the buildings are bare white walls, standing like canvasses awaiting the master’s touch. Were it not for the couple of thousand Chinese tourists who disembarked from a fleet of buses before we arrived, it’d have been better still. It’s a poser’s paradise, saturated by selfies. Spare me. If I ever win the lottery, I’m going to rent the place for a couple of hours at sunset or sunrise and have it all to myself… and maybe a few close friends. Plenty more pictures on the Any Excuse to Travel Facebook page, but these give you a sense of what it’s at. Colour is scarce – the gold building photographed houses the public loos. I didn’t have time to queue to see what was inside – next time.

Chiang Rai White Temple

Chiang Rai White Temple

Chiang Rai White Temple

Chiang Rai White Temple Loos

Baan Dam, aka the Black House, Chiang Rai

From white to black and there couldn’t be more of a difference. The product of the weird and wonderful artistry of Thawan Duchanee, blogger Roy Cavanagh describes the Black House thus:

Part art studio, part museum, part home, Baan Dam is an eclectic mix of traditional northern Thai buildings interspersed with some outlandish modern designs. Baan Dam is a thought-provoking combination of sanuk, the surreal and the sombre and [..] it’s fair to say that some of the artwork and themes on display won’t be to everybody’s liking.

The prudish side of me was a little taken aback by the signs for the loo. The squeamish side of me could have done without seeing those worms (if that’s what they are). But the quirky side of me enjoyed its day out. Duchannee, who died a few years back, had the wherewithal to amass an extensive collection of stuff on his travels. It’s not the ashtray-from-Brighton or the tequila-shotglass-from-Tijuana stuff we’re taking about but rather furniture, and snake skins, and sculptures. It’s a mad place altogether. But it, too, was besieged by hordes of visiting Chinese tourists although this time, thankfully, they didn’t land until we were leaving. If you’re planning what to do in Chiang Rai, do this first. You need a fresh mind to take it all in. Duchannee apparently came to the world’s attention with his piece ‘A Drawer’. Said to explain Buddhism to the West, it’s one I’d love to see but can’t find photos of anywhere. If anyone knows more, let me know .

Thawan developed a unique style of artistry using black and red tones, based on the styles of traditional Buddhist art to explore the darkness lurking within humanity. His pictures initially shocked many people as being blasphemous to the Buddhist religion and some of his early exhibitions were attacked. But many leading Thai intellectuals supported his work. Kukrit Pramoj for one claimed “his art is to be understood as giving life to myth.”

Lots more photos on the on the Any Excuse to Travel Facebook page. Check them out if you’re curious to see more.

Black House Chiang Rai

Chiang Rai Black House

Chiang Rai Black House

Chiang Rai Black House

Wat Huai Pla Kung, aka Big Buddha, Chiang Rai

It’s hard to keep track of the many faces of Buddha. Before coming to Thailand, Buddha to me was a short, chubby fellow with a big belly and a bigger smile. Since visiting the myriad temples in Bangkok, Ayutthaya, and Chiang Mai, I’ve come to know his various embodiments, but I’d never imagined seeing him as a woman. And he isn’t. Or rather this Big Buddha is really a big, big, depiction of the goddess of Mercy, Guan Yin, ‘an East Asian bodhisattva associated with compassion and venerated by Mahayana Buddhists and followers of Chinese folk religions.’ No surprise there considering the influence of Chinese art and the spectacular Chinese cemeteries dotted around the country. She is revered for her 10 great protections from fire, water, falling, politics, prison, curses or poisons, demons, evil beasts, disputes or wars, and unlucky children.

Standing some 79 metres tall (even though she’s sitting), Guan Yin can be seen from the city. We took the elevator to the top, inside her head, and looked out through her eyes and through her bindi – her third eye. The views are incredible. The wall carvings are reminiscent of the intricacies of the White Temple, and the overall affect is jaw-dropping. I was particularly taken by the donation system here. Instead of, or in addition to, giving money, you can purchase a large bag of rice for 100 baht that goes to feed the elderly in an old folks home. You buy the bag, attach your name, and then put the offering on the altar. Constructive giving.

Over to Guan Yin’s left (stage left) is the nine-tier pagoda, another architectural marvel. Again, Wat Huai Pla Kung is a relative newcomer to the Chiang Rai tourist offer (although it was built for Buddhists, not tourists). Dating back to 2001, its main attraction isn’t the pagoda or the Guan Yin, but the head monk, Phra Ajarn Sobchoke, who apparently can tell the future. Indeed, P had some great stories about how the money he needed to build the temple came to him, as needed, be it for a new boiler or whatever. The day we were there, he was being interviewed. His translator/interpreter/aide stopped and said hello to us, asking us where we were from. The great man himself smiled at me and I felt that tingle that tells me I’m in the presence of greatness. Magic. Again, more photos on the Facebook Page.
Wat Huai Pla Kung, aka Big Buddha, Chiang Rai
Wat Huai Pla Kung, aka Big Buddha, Chiang Rai
Wat Huai Pla Kung, aka Big Buddha, Chiang Rai
Wat Huai Pla Kung, Phra Ajarn Sobchoke, Chiang Rai

And the rest of Chiang Rai

There’s plenty to see and do in the city. We left the Blue Temple till next time. And the Oub Kham Museum which covers

..the history, culture, handicrafts and heritage of all the different Tai groups of Southeast Asia. Thais, or Siamese, are just one branch of the Tai ethnic/linguistic family that also includes, among numerous other groups: Lao, Northern Thai, (or Lanna), Shan, Tai Lue, Tai Yuan; the Black, Red and White Tai groups of north-western Vietnam and the Dai of Southern China, from where all Tai groups originate.

We skipped the Phiphitthaphan Up Kham museum with its ‘wide-ranging collection of artifacts, pictures & clothing from ancient royal kingdoms’ in favour of the Hill Tribe Museum, which gave us a fascinating account of life in the surrounding hills and mountains. Well worth seeing BEFORE you go to Phu Chi Fa. It knocked some of the stories we’d been hearing about responsible tourism on the head, particularly regarding elephant rides. Chiang Rai is a gem of a city but I wonder how much we’d have seen of it had we been tourists instead of visitors. They pointed out a tiny little shop opposite the Overbrook Hospital, frequented by locals, that is packed to the seams with all sorts of traditional, hand-dyed and woven Thai clothes. We came across this gem when we went for pizza at a Thai place, Ban Lom Jen, that opens just on Fridays to serve pizza until they run out. It’s in the village of Ban Rimkok and I’d be hard pushed to find my way there again.

Buddha near Ban Lom Jen homestay Chiang Rai

We had a great week. Massive thanks again to our wonderful hosts. Early Wednesday morning, we caught a plane to Don Mueang International Airport near Bangkok. Asia’s oldest operating airport, it dates back to 1914 and is thought to be one of the world’s oldest international airports. From there we caught a taxi East to Kanchanaburi, to the River Kwai, for just 1500 baht. The Thai equivalent of Uber, GRAB, is our new friend.

Other interesting articles about Chiang Rai

Getting from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai by bus

Okay, so not an article, but a short animated video on Guan Yin and the wish for children.

A short history of Chiang Rai

Good photos of the inside of the Pagoda at Wat Huai Pla Kung

Good photos from the Black House

Wat Phra Kaeo Chiang Rai Buddha Day

I’ve missed mass for two Sundays in a row. I’m excused though, as I’m travelling. Anyway, the only Catholic church I’ve seen was from a boat. But Tuesday was a Buddha day in Thailand. They don’t do Sundays, as we Roman Catholics do. Thailand practises Theravada Buddhism in accordance with the four lunar phases: the new moon, the full moon, and the two quarter moons. On these days, the faithful get together at the temple, bring their offerings, and pray. And in Chiang Rai, my friends invited me to go with them to Wat Phra Kaew. I didn’t need to be asked twice. 

We left the house at 5.30 am having packed the cooked rice and cut flowers into the car. We headed to the market to buy food for the monks. We weren’t alone. Others, their destination marked by the white clothes they wore, were doing the same. At Wat Phra Kaew, we put our flowers in vases, our rice in pots, and our food on plates. We then lit three sticks of incense for the Three Treasures: Buddha, the dharma (what my friend explained as the Buddha Bible), and the Sangha (monks, nuns, laywomen, laymen). We added two candles, which appeased the RC in me. As I watched people make their offerings, I was struck by the mindfulness of it all. This wasn’t just throwing something on a table or in a box. Each offering was made in prayerful silence, hands together, head bowed. Buddhists are serious about their karma.

Wat Phra Kaew Chiang Rai Buddha Day

From there it was into the prayer hall. The monks sat along the wall on large chairs that looked like mini sofas. A length of tables ran in front of them. The faithful greeted friends and strangers alike with the traditional S̄wạs̄dī Ka (for women) and S̄wạs̄dī Krap (for men). Being the only Western face in the room, I was introduced more than most.

Wat Phra Kaew Chiang Rai Buddha Day

The head monk (?) came out and began the order of proceedings bang on 6.30 am. In what sounded a little like the responsorial psalm, he chanted something to which the congregation replied. This went on for about 30 minutes. Then came their equivalent of our sermon. A younger monk sat, cross-legged, on a wide chair on the dais, brought what looked like a fan in front of his face, and spoke from behind it. He then removed the fan and read from a long, narrow, rectangular piece of bamboo. As he read, instead of words, I heard music and although the meaning escaped me, the beauty of the message was clear. I’ve never heard a voice with such timbre, such resonance. The congregation’s response sounded so flat in return.

Wat Phra Kaew Chiang Rai Buddha Day

Next, all the monks started to chant in unison. While this was going on, those who preferred to do so, brought up their rice offerings. Others brought in the food offerings from outside and placed them on tables before the monks. I figured this was probably in line with our offertory procession – just far more inclusive. More still had their iPads out, and their phones, and were merrily snapping away. One man was moving about the room with pen and paper and seemed to be taking a silent roll call.

Wat Phra Kaew Chiang Rai Buddha Day

When the offerings had been made, the monks continued to chant. I noticed a general scramble as people dipped into their baskets of tricks (which contained rice bowls, incense, candles, flowers, food) and pulled out a dish and a bottle or urn of water. They then poured the water into the bowl slowly, almost in harmony with the chant, and set it back in their baskets. Later, when the ceremony was over, they’d pour it on the garden outside the temple door to give strength and good deeds to spirits, thus honouring their dead. I thought this particularly nice. The temple’s gardens

As the monks continued to chant, some people put money into envelopes and brought them in person to the head monk. Others I’d seen discreetly put their offering into a donation box. Either works, depending on the need that’s being fed. Buddhists, too, have a collection plate it would seem, although a far less obtrusive one.

Even though I didn’t understand the words, I knew we were getting the final blessing at about 7.50. The telltale rustling and closing of missals, the packing up, the anxious seats – all pretty universal symbols of a ceremony reaching the final stretch. From there, we went over the school, for the annual group photo. Yes! What luck I have. I’ll be on the wall of Wat Phra Kaew in Chiang Rai for the next year – me and the monks and my friends and the rest of the congregation. I’ll be easy to spot. They’ve promised to send me a copy. The temple has a school for young monks with more than 100 in attendance. They were photographed first. So young. So young.

Wat Phra Kaew Chiang Rai Buddha Day

From there it was off to eat in the canteen. People sat at long tables after helping themselves to rice dishes, soups, doughnuts, and sticky rice wrapped in leaves. Quite the feed. This is usual practice, apparently. They bring food for the monks and the monks, in turn, feed them – the circle remains unbroken.

I had a quick few minutes to look around before we headed home. Wat Phra Kaew is home to the Emerald Buddha (Phra Kaew Morakot), discovered in the mid-fifteenth century when the chedi housing it was struck by lightning. The original is now in Bangkok in a temple of the same name on the grounds of the Royal Palace. The one in Chiang Rai, carved in China from Canadian jade, is a slightly smaller, but true copy.

Wat Phra Kaew Chiang Rai Emerald Buddha

Wat Phra Kaew is also home to the largest and, as it is said, most beautiful Buddha images in Thailand: Phra Jao Lan Thong. The brass and copper image is thought to be 700 years old. Housed in what I think is the ubosot (or is it the viharn?), the building itself is fiercely guarded by two large Naga. I’d spent my temple time so far thinking these were dragons, but they’re snakes, mythical creatures said to be half-human with all sorts of back stories.

Wat Phra Kaeo Chiang Rai Buddha Day

Wat Phra Kaeo Chiang Rai Buddha Day

Wat Phra Kaew is a beautiful temple. It was a beautiful ceremony. They are such beautiful people. Perhaps it was because I’d put in the hours or maybe it was because the place was overrun with benevolent monks,  I was very taken with the place. It felt holier, less touristy than others I’ve been to, more real. And this despite the up-to-the-minute technology and QR codes,

Wat Phra Kaeo Chiang Rai Buddha Day

Wat Phra Kaew Chiang Rai

The museum wasn’t yet open but the gardens are littered with all sorts of statuary. Elderly monks were linked back to their quarters. Young novices hung around. Other still were on their phones (something I simply cannot get my head around). It was all go and yet all so serene. In my short time in Thailand, I’ve come to appreciate the respect in which monks are held. Bus stations, train stations, and airports all have seats reserved for them that you sit in at your peril. People part in the streets to let them pass. It’s all so very, very different (and sadly so) from our priests. I was struck, and not for the first time, by the simplicity of their concept of making merit.

According to Buddhism, good deeds or ‘acts of merit’ bring happiness to the doer both in this world and in the hereafter. Acts of merit are also believed to lead towards the final goal of everlasting happiness. The acts of merit can be performed through body, speech or mind. Every good deed produces ‘merit’ which accumulates to the ‘credit’ of the doer. Buddhism also teaches that the acquired merit can be transferred to others’ it can be shared vicariously with others. In other words, the merit is ‘reversible’ and so can be shared with other persons. The persons who receive the merit can be either living or departed ones.

This was one of the highlights of my trip to Thailand, an honour and a privilege indelibly marked on my consciousness. I left, promising myself to continue making merit and to be a little more mindful in thought and prayer. Valuable lessons indeed. Thank you, P&A, for sharing your faith with me.

Interesting articles associated with Buddha and Buddhism

The use of incense in Buddhism
Candles in Buddhism

Legend of the Emerald Buddha

More on the Nagas

How to address a Buddhist monk

The monks’ rules

More on making merits