Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The other side of Bangkok

Hanging out with Warren in Sukhumvit puts you smack bang in the expat community and amongst the western sex tourists who frequent the girlie bars in the area. And it isn't easy to tell the difference between the groups!

But head west of the train station and you are slap bang in Chinatown, with bulging markets selling anything and everything, wholesale and retail. Gold shops were chokka with people freaking out at the currency crisis and buying up big, whereas the colourful gem shops were quite empty.

No modern highrise buildings here, just shops selling incense sitting cheek by jowl with coffin shops, and the restaurants openly displaying shark fins. Enormous markets going on forever.

We went for dim sum on Sunday, very poor food in comparison to the culinary delights of Penang. But crossing the river a few times and having a few beers in riverside bars made up for an ordinary lunch.

Check out the Bangkok photos for those I've added.

It's now off to Vietnam, for a change of pace in the hills amongst many different ethnic minority tribes. Can't wait!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Further into Isan

I did wonder whether I just might be overdoing it, visiting even more Khmer ruins in eastern Thailand. But I'd left one of the best till last. Phimai, built about 100 years prior to Angkor Wat, is said to have been the model for it. It certainly is an impressive structure, with its numerous walkways, corridors and terraces.Phimai is smack in the middle of a small town of the same name. There isn't alot to do there besides visit the ruins and a nearby giant banyan tree which has spread into a mini forest. It being the wet season the island housing the tree is actually under water, so it requires some paddling in ankle deep water to get amongst the greenery. Quite fun actually.
For all the photos

I stayed at a quaint little guesthouse, all wooden with shuttered windows that opened fully on three sides, a mosquito netted bed and a shared bathroom with hot water (an unnecessary luxury in this heat). If there'd been more to do I would have stayed longer than one night, but surprised myself with my efficiency in doing the sites within about 3 hours. All I had left to do the next morning was a quick session on the internet then hop onto a bus to my next destination.The government bus network is extensive, and very inexpensive. It's just a matter of turning up at a bus station and someone will direct you to the correct bus. Mostly they are airconditioned and the seats are quite comfortable. They even have curtains for covering the window to keep the sun and heat out. Hawkers regularly hop on the bus to sell you snacks and drinks, and there are stops for toilet breaks every couple of hours. Very civilised indeed.

The back seat of the bus is reserved for monks, of which there are many travelling throughout Thailand. They also seem to hang out around Khmer ruins, I'm not really sure why. Well actually they hang out almost everywhere, I even saw a couple in a computer shop the other day. I haven't quite worked out what all these monks do, they are certainly very photogenic in their orange robes and shaved heads against a sandstone backdrop. But not when seen smoking or talking animatedly on their mobile phones - yes it isn't just the young with this accessory in Thailand, every granny has one, and so do the monks. I'm actually wondering whether being a monk is a profession for wastrels, lazy layabouts who couldn't be bothered getting a real job so they meditate and accept alms from the devout thai buddhists. But I'm just an ignorant foreigner, what do I know?
My next port of call was a smallish town called Chaiyaphum, where tourism doesn't really exist and life just goes on as normal. Isan (as north eastern Thailand is known) is the heart of the silk weaving industry, and there are numerous towns famous for their products. I'd chosen Ban Khwao, 13km out of Chaiyaphum, as the village I would visit to observe the process and buy some silk. But it was a bit of a disappointment: the museum wasn't open and I could only find 5 or 6 shops selling silk. When I asked about seeing the weaving taking place I was told it was far from here. So much for cottage industry!!

However that didn't stop me from buying up big on silk. I didn't end up going for the fancy designs, just bought buckets of different colours and will now have to demothball the sewing machine on my return home. Although tailoring is available, the styles available were not to my liking. Plus I'd had experiences with shoddy workmanship in Vietnam, so I think I'd rather do it myself. I'm not a bad dressmaker, I've had years of practice making my own clothes, it's just been a while! (another reason not to work fulltime on my return!)Having promised Warren and Imp I'd be back in Bangkok for the weekend, I decided not to venture further east but to return, by bus of course, to the capital a day early. It's time to bite the bullet and start exploring the city.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Exploring Khmer ruins

Hiring a motorbike gives you so much freedom to get out and explore the area without the concerns of trying to find appropriate public transport. Once you get out into the countryside, the Thai script predominates, making me basically illiterate. But road signs and tourist signs have roman script as well, making self navigation easier than negotiating which combination of bus or sawngtheuw to take from the bus terminal.

A French couple staying at the same guesthouse in Nang Rong (we were the only guests) and I hired bikes for the day to visit a number of Khmer ruins close to the Cambodian border. I had wanted to go to another ruin further east, but there is ongoing hostilities between Thailand and Cambodia over ownership of the temple since it gained Unesco World Heritage status in July, so I decided not to chance it. So in one day, we tried to visit as many as we could.The most famous in the area is Phanom Rung, a temple built on the top of an extinct volcano, looking out over the vast flat plateau surrounding it. The terrace up to the temple must be a kilometre long, it is a very impressive approach, up steep steps to the temple proper on the peak. The temple is oriented east-west such that at certain times of the year the sun lines up and shines through all the numerous doors from one end to the other.The temple is made from sandstone, and has been beautifully restored by the Fine Arts Department, including recovery of stolen lintels like the reclining Vishnu which was retrieved from a museum in Chicago after considerable adverse media coverage.
After Phanom Rung, we headed to Meung Tam, another temple complex devoted to Shiva. Again a beautiful restoration, and a wealth of fantastic carvings and lintels.Lunch at a local restaurant then further east we went, to some remote temples right on the Cambodian border. Absolutely no tourists here, not even Thai ones, so we had the places to ourselves. The back of the temple is actually right on the Cambodian border, so we had a chat with the local border boys who guard a wooden fence between the two sides. One side of that fence has land mines, we dutifully stayed on the Thai side!The ride back should have been an easy cruise, through the green as green landscape past fields of rice and little wooden housed villages. But three puntures in the back tyre of Silva and Celine's bike meant considerable delays while helpful locals repaired them. Soon the sun was setting so the final journey was in the dark along the highway with the trucks, buses and cars. Not alot of fun but a wide verge designed for bikes kept us out of the bulk of traffic. A quiet beer and fried rice with chicken was all we could manage before we all retired to bed exhausted.
More photos

An encounter on a train

It was a six hour journey on the train from Ayutthaya to Buriram in Thailand's east. The carriage was third class and relatively full, but I'd managed to score a window seat and could enjoy the passing scenery and the natural air-con.

I first noticed them when they sat down opposite me because the young boy was one funny looking kid. A huge broadened nasal bridge and widely set eyes made the paediatrician in me think he must be syndromal. But rule one is check the parents. Sure enough, the older woman holding him had the same facial features. (Thai parents seem to still carry around quite old children, ones who appear to be 3 or 4 years old). With these two was a younger woman, who looked to be perhaps 17 or 18, who was quite pretty and didn't share the unfortunate features of her companion. As they couldn't speak English, and I couldn't speak Thai, I was unable to determine what the relationship was, and as the journey continued I became more curious to know just what was going on.

A fourth person, a man who was drunk on whiskey, appeared to be part of their party and sat down next to me. He stunk of alcohol and was clearly lecherous towards this young girl, buying her drinks and food and pestering her with questions. It was clear from her body language that she did not welcome the attention, yet she didn't refuse the refreshments being bought for her. The older woman appeared to find the situation amusing, and if anything seemed to encourage the man in his attentions. I continued to wonder what the relationship was, had she been sold off to this older man against her wishes, or was this just a case of Thai politeness where one didn't tell the lecherous bastard to piss off?

The drunk kept getting up to wander off and have another drink and a smoke with his mates at the end of the carriage, so I decided, at the encouragement of the young girl, to spread out my legs over the seat so he'd not be able to sit there. Others in the carriage were similarly spread out so I wouldn't be the only one. When the lech returned he decided to stand near the window, between me and her, which was clearly unsuitable to either of us. I decided to be an obnoxious foreigner and in my most angry voice gave him a shove and told him to go somewhere else as he stunk. He sheepishly left. I exchanged a glance with the young girl and she quite surprisingly didn't seem all that grateful that I had banished him from the scene. There was obviously more to the story than I knew. If only we'd been able to communicate.

The fascination wasn't one sided, I could see that she was as intrigued by me as I by her. What was a single foreign woman doing travelling through the countryside? Was it actually possible to be financially independent and able to do as one pleased without the interference of men? I did wonder what her future held but I guess I'll never know.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Overwhelmed by history

It's just impossible to get my head around Thai history, but here's an attempt on my part to give it some clarity: The Thai kingdom was initially under the rule of the Khmer kingdom, who were followers of the Hindu religion and built huge temple complexes along their trading routes. The Khmer had most of the east, the Burmese had the north and the Malay the south. Just when the Thais got in on the act or where they came from, I haven't yet worked out, but I think they came from the north, as Sukotthai was the first Thai capital. Then Ayutthaya became the capital, and the king of this time had considerable diplomatic relationships with his neighbours and the international world. Later, the capital moved to Bangkok, where it is today.

Ayutthaya was sacked and burned by the invading Burmese army of the time (dates are hard to work out as the thai calendar is different from ours), and there continues to be a healthy disdain for the Burmese even to this day. After conquering the city, the Burmese abandoned it, and it remained in disrepair until one of the Bangkok kings decided to restore it. The Fine Arts Department of Thailand has done an amazing job throughout the country in restoring many old buildings and temples and producing a number of excellent pamphlets about them.Ayutthaya is less than 100km from downtown Bangkok, it costs 60cents on a commuter train to get there. A hired pushbike ($2) will get you around to all the temples, and an evening cruise on the river aboard a longtail boat ($8) gets you to a few more of the further temples and the chance to enjoy the sunset. The market is lots of fun, with a strong stomach needed whilst walking past the piles of tripe, hearts and livers on sale. The row of pig heads was especially amusing.
At some point the kings brought buddhism to Thailand, and converted previously Khmer Hindu temples into Buddhist temples (this is the bit that confuses me a little). So some of the temples are a mix of old Khmer influences and newer styles. And don't even get me to name any of the kings, that puts my brain into complete meltdown!
I spent a couple of days touring Ayutthaya with a Dutch girl, Sylvia, who is off to work in an orphanage in Pnom Penh, Cambodia. It was quite an effort finding a restaurant that had vegetarian food, particularly when fish and fish sauce are something you don't eat. I couldn't stand to be that fussy over food, it's so much easier to be able to experiment with the tastes available without worrying just what's in it. I'm sure she'd see it differently, but I actually felt sorry for Sylvia and other vegetarians.
The temples are, of course, mindblowingly beautiful with their towers (called prangs), buddha images and carvings. Observing the local thai's devotion to buddha is an attraction in itself. The amount of money spent on gold leaf, devotional objects and donations puts the measly price of our entrance fee into perspective.

For all the photos click here

Sunday, October 12, 2008

A lake, waterfalls and border villages

Sangkhlaburi is perched on a huge lake formed when the River Kwae Noi was dammed for hydroelectric power generation. It's a tranquil place to spend a few days, but it's also a centre for the large communities of displaced refugees from Burma.
Across the Songhkalia River, via a long wooden bridge, is a Mon village comprising of mainly Burmese refugees. Many live in little bamboo huts on stilts in pretty appalling conditions, made worse by the fact that the Thai government doesn't acknowledge their existence so they have no legal status. This means they can't legally work, or get an education, or access health services. Many abandon their children, who are then brought up in the orphanages run by western expatriates or buddhist nuns. Many westerners support the orphanages through donations, volunteering for 1-6 months, or through buying handicrafts and clothes made by the single mothers who are also looked after. For more information, visit http://www.baanunrak.org/.

Twenty kilometres away, past a police checkpoint to make sure I'm not an illegal Burmese immigrant, is the border town at Three Pagodas Pass. Unfortunately I wasn't able to go over to the Burmese side as the crazy military government of Myanmar have closed the border to foreigners since the cyclone earlier this year. Given that it is impossible to go further into Burma from there, it is the height of paranoia to think western journalists would be amongst the tourists getting a gander of life on the other side of the border (it's a very long way from the area where the flooding was).Every day, Burmese people cross the border into Thailand to sell handicrafts at the little stalls set up near the rather unimpressive three pagodas. They drive a hard bargain for their goods - lots of jewellery, teak furniture and knick knacks, and handwoven textiles and sarongs - then cross back over into Burma each evening. I bought a few things, figuring it was a good way to provide some income to ordinary Burmese people not their government.I'm starting to get a hang of the motorbike riding so went for quite a long ride out to some waterfalls for a swim and photography session. Slowly I am learning how to get those silky smooth shots you see on calendars and postcards. The tripod is essential for this, and makes carrying the darned thing worthwhile.There's also some temples to visit, and a small local produce market. The Burmese ladies with their traditional face powder are quite beautiful, but I've not yet had the chance to do any portraits.

More photos

I now have to backtrack to Bangkok before heading off on a cultural feast of ancient temples.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Thai - Burma Railway

The Aussie digger, who through incredible hardship prevails because of his mates, is a familiar refrain in Australian folklore and history, and the story of the POWs who were forced by the Japanese to build over 400km of railway is one most Australians of my generation would be well aware of. Visiting Hellfire Pass, a massive cutting through sheer rock that was done by hand tools and dynamite, is a humbling experience. It reminds me of how I felt standing at Anzac Cove, Gallipoli. And every year on Anzac Day they hold a dawn service there as well.The Thai Burma Railway was built over extremely rough, dense mountainous terrain by Allied POWs captured by the Japanese, and by indentured Asian labourers. There was no heavy machinery available as there was no access, so everything was done by hand: building embankments, erecting railway bridges, and creating cuttings. The conditions were intolerable, with lack of food and serious diseases, not to mention brutal punishments meted out by the japanese and korean guards, causing huge mortality rates. It's actually surprising anyone survived at all!There are war cemeteries to visit, full of the names of young men from all over the world, but no graves for the estimated 90,000 asian labourers who died building the railway. It's sad to think that so many families have loved ones who just vanished without a trace. There were no records kept, unlike those kept by the POWs who were meticulous in ensuring families of dead comrades would know where they were buried, but at least through the memorials here those men haven't been forgotten.
Because I am a complete sucker for punishment, I decided to walk the entire 4km trail and return which has been cleared from the jungle. It's the wet season and it's hot and sweaty walking along the old line. The old trestle bridges are gone but the dry stone walls on each end are still perfectly intact. Huge earth embankments up to 8 metres high were created, all that earth being carried by the sackload, by malnourished, very sick men. It's just gobsmacking to go there, and stand there looking at what they created.But Kanchanaburi isn't just about odes to the railway and the men who were forced to build it. The bridge over the river (which isn't the Kwai by the way but the Mae Khong) is a great spot for checking out the thai tourist enjoying themselves on karaoke rafts plying up and down the river. Or to take a noisy long tail boat ride from one end of town to the other.
I hired a motorbike - yes i'm getting better at it - and went to visit the westernmost temple of the Khmer kingdom. I thought it only fitting to visit it, given I'll be seeing a few more over the next few months, culminating in the big one at Angkor in Cambodia. Plus I wanted to get out of town and photograph some of the beautiful karst formations that make up the mountains and hills around here.
Tomorrow I move on, after I've indulged in yet another thai massage - kind of like a yoga workout with someone else doing all the work for you - with a final train ride along the rest of the railway then a bus trip up into the mountains near Burma.

More photos

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

City of Angels???

Bangkok means City of Angels. The actual name of the city is a tongue twisting 20 word soliloquey which means a little bit more than "city of angels", so the fact that the name has been shortened to something quick and easy is actually quite fitting.

Perhaps if you are male, you might well agree that it is a city of angels, with beautiful thai women only too eager to please. Yes this is the heart of sex tourism, where seriously ugly fat old men have no trouble finding a sweet young thing to adoringly hang off their arm. And they are everywhere, on every street, in every restaurant, at least in the expat area in which I stayed during my time in Bangkok. Perhaps if I'd stayed elsewhere it may not have been so obvious. In fact I've heard that Khao San Rd has become a tourist attraction in itself for checking out the western backpackers trying hard to be hippies for a few months with their dreadlocks and tattoos.

Sex tourism is big in Bangkok, with girlie bars and sex shows galore. The commercialisation of sex continues to feed demands for more girls, leading to coersion and the selling of young children into the trade. Of course it isn't just the westerners feeding the demand, thai men regularly visit huge brothels on the outskirts of the city. And apparently prostitution is illegal in Thailand!! Now besides the seamy side of Bangkok, it's a huge modern metropolis with enormous shopping malls, state of the art public transport with the metro and skytrains, and numerous buddhist shrines and temples. I took it pretty easy, just stayed with a friend and got some much needed chores done, like a haircut, applying for a new passport and buying a property!! Transferring that sort of money when you're on holiday can be quite a shock!

I'll be coming and going through Bangkok over the next few weeks and months so I'll add to the photos as I go.