There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Bangkok (2) Jim Thompson's House and Other Shrines

On a sunny morning we set off for Jim Thompson’s House, first making our way back to the bridge over Khlong Saen Saeb. ‘Khlong taxis’ ply up and down the waterway, but for this journey they were unnecessary, we only had to walk a couple of hundred metres along what at home would be called the tow-path.
A 'Khlong Taxi' passes as we walk to Jim Thompson's House

Jim Thompson arrived in Bangkok in 1945 to set up the local office of the OSS (later known as the CIA) and subsequently became Military Attaché at the US embassy. On leaving the army he created a business dealing in Thai silk, the huge success of his enterprise saving the country's ancient but then dying craft of silk weaving. He was an art collector and brought six old teak houses to Bangkok from the countryside and reassembled them as one house for himself and his treasures.

Jim Thompson's House, Bangkok

It is a beautiful house set in a lush tropical garden which makes it difficult to photograph, but is so peaceful it is hard to believe you are in the heart of the city. We were shown round by a sharp-tongued guide, ‘don’t hang around taking photographs here you can do that later... put your bags in these lockers... don’t take any photographs inside... take your shoes off here’ but who revealed, as the tour went on, a dry and very appealing sense of humour.

Jim Thompson's House, Bangkok

Thompson collected objet d’art from all over SE Asia including many statues, some like this one (outside, so photography was permitted!) lacking heads or other parts of their anatomy. To Thais this is eccentric behaviour; damaged statues bring bad luck and should be destroyed, not collected.
Headless statue, Jim Thompson's House

In 1967, while visited friends in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia, Thompson went out for a stroll after lunch and disappeared. Despite extensive searches no trace of him has ever been found. Many theories have been put forward and some, given his CIA background, involve interesting if improbable conspiracies. To our guide the answer was simple: that’s what happens when you collect broken statues. [update March 2017, Cameron Highlands: we saw the house from which he disappeared]

After coffee in Jim Thompson’s snack bar, we returned to the canal and hopped on a Khlong Taxi. ‘Hop’ is an appropriate word, the boat slows but barely stops and the already high sides are topped with a tarpaulin to protect passengers from the sun and splashes of the extravagantly polluted water. The crew, hard hats on their heads, clamber along the gunwales outside the tarpaulin, thrusting a hand through to collect the minimal fare. We only wanted to go two stops, but our boat terminated at the first stop and everybody had to climb off and then onto the next one – an interesting scramble above water you really would not want to fall into.

On the Khlong Taxi, Bangkok

Some poor map reading made it an unnecessarily long walk to Nai Lert Park where there is a small shrine…..

…. which is hardly unusual in Bangkok, but this one gained a reputation for promoting fertility, resulting in many interesting donations from those in hope and those giving thanks.

A small selection of the phalluses at the shrine
Nai Lert Park, Bangkok
We lingered briefly among the lingams before heading back to the main drag and turning right towards the MBK centre. We passed a shop which seemed a little early with its New Year message. In Yangon a few days previously I had photographed Father Christmas seriously overdressed for the climate. Here everything looked right, it was the music that was wrong. It is weird to hear a choir singing about ‘dashing through the snow in a one horse open sleigh’ when the temperature is on the high side of 30.

Happy New Year, Bangkok style
A little further along we passed the Erawan Hotel. Its construction had been plagued by a spate of accidents so instead of looking at their health and safety policy the builders constructed a shrine. This solved the problem and news of the shrine’s protective powers spread resulting in a steady stream of supplicants bringing their own petitions.[Update: In August 2015 the shrine was the scene of a bombing in which 20 died and 125 were injured. The bombing is believed to be the work of Uighur nationalists in retaliation for the extradition of one of their number to China].

Brahman shrine, outside the Erawan Hotel, Bangkok

We reached the MBK Centre in time for lunch. MBK is, I read, Bangkok’s trendiest shopping mall, though on some floors it looks more like a covered market. For us the attraction was the food court, which had been recommended by Hilary (who is reliable in these matters) and Lynne’s hairdresser Fay (who has yet to establish a track record). We made our way to the 6th floor, bought an appropriate supply of coupons and wandered round the stalls deciding where to spend them.
The MBK Centre, Bangkok

The food court is bright and clean and offers a variety of Asian cuisines at reasonable prices. It had the feel of a huge cafeteria, but I would forgive that – and the lack of beer – if the food was good. Selecting a Thai stall (well we were in Thailand) Lynne ordered Pad Thai prawns and I went for mussels on a sizzling dish with a variety of accompaniments. Lynne said her meal was nothing special; mine was so bland it could have been anything. Sorry Hilary and Fay, perhaps we picked the wrong stall.

After lunch we wandered round the shops failing to find a XXXXXL(local size) tee-shirt to fit my XL western frame.

We walked back in the hot afternoon and dropped into the 7/11 shop outside our hotel to acquire a couple of cold beers to drink in the air-conditioned comfort of our room. Grabbing some cans from the chiller I took them to the counter to be told, very apologetically, that it was illegal for shops to sell alcohol before 5pm. With that plan scuppered, we repaired to the little restaurant where we had eaten dinner yesterday and found them happy to deal with our hard earned thirst.

Traffic beneath the skytrain, Bangkok
At the hotel, we wrote some emails before attempting to look up King Bhumibol on Wikipedia. In China there are lots of bits of the internet you cannot access, Facebook for one, but in Thailand with its more-or-less functioning democracy and liberal tradition we were surprised to be greeted with a screen informing us that we were not permitted to view this page.

Accessing it at home we found little to upset the Thai authorities. The king, we already knew, is above politics and greatly revered by his people. He ascended the throne in 1946, making him the longest reigning monarch in Thai history and currently the world’s longest serving head of state (beating Queen Elizabeth by 6 years).

For once the evening was dry and we selected a street restaurant near our hotel. Although it had been set up by hand in the hour since dusk, there was an extensive menu (with English translation) and a good selection of drinks. Lynne chose a lightly fried fish which she said was excellent but my ‘duck north-eastern style’ was less successful. Livers are not my favourite part of the bird, and there was so much lemongrass it overwhelmed everything else – but at least it was not bland.

Elaborate street food, Bangkok

Dinner over, we strolled up and down the road. We would set off for home the next morning and felt unconvinced our short stay had allowed us to properly get to grips with Bangkok. Beneath the pedestrian bridge over the main road was a small shrine, and on that shrine was a cat, stretched out and asleep. In my memory this has become the defining image of Bangkok.

Cat on a shrine, Bangkok
Myanmar, Land of Gold

Monday, 26 November 2012

Bangkok (1): The Old Royal Centre

On the short flight from Yangon to Bangkok you are reminded to wind your watch forward half an hour. You also need to wind your mind forward sixty years, but no one tells you that.

Suvarnabhumi Airport is very much a 21st century experience. Myanmar markets itself as the Land of Gold, and lives up to its billing spectacularly; Thailand’s claim to be the Land of Smiles foundered on the stony faces of the immigration officials.

We took the fast, clean and efficient airport railway to the end of the line and transferred to the metro. Like the airport railway this runs not just above ground but above the streets, though calling it the ‘skytrain’ involves a little hyperbole. We needed to go one stop, but that involved lugging cases down and then up stairs to find the right entrance, the purchase of a ticket to the wrong station (though with a very similar name) and the purchase of the correct ticket after the discovery that ‘ticket offices’ only supply change for the ticket machines.

Bangkok at night
It was raining hard by the time we found our hotel. Faced with a range of hotels with rooms from £20 a night to £200+ I had guessed that Bangkok would be similar to Hong Kong and selected an ‘aparthotel’ at £50 a night. For that in HK you get a small room. The window will give a view of next door’s wall a metre away, there will be too little space to stand beside your bed, you must lift the mattress to open the fridge and maybe sit sideways on the toilet. On the plus side, it will be clean, the fridge will work and there may even be something to watch on the television. For the same price in Bangkok our 17th floor apartment had two panoramic wall to ceiling windows, a spacious sitting room with large screen TV, a kitchenette with full sized fridge and a separate bedroom.

Bangkok in the morning (through our other window)
Eager to experience Bangkok’s famed street food, we looked at the rain, considered our tiredness and settled for the restaurant in the apartment complex. It was cheap and cheerful, though my clams with chili paste could have done with more chili. We retired to our room, drank the raspberry infused firewater I had bought in Heho Airport and watched a film.

The morning was warm but overcast as we boarded a crowded skytrain. Our destination was the Ko Ratanakosin district, the oldest part of the city and we intended taking the train to the river and then catching a waterbus. Although hardly a direct route, a trip along the Mae Nam Chao Phraya (The River of Kings) is considered one of the city’s top attractions, so it seemed a good plan.
The dock, right beside the stairs from the train, was a confusing place with several possible destinations. Busy locals knew exactly which of the long queues they wanted while tourists hovered uncertainly. We duly hovered, then swooped on what we hoped was the right queue.
When the boat arrived we all piled on. The trip did not live up to its billing. Standing crammed together on a walkway, our views were limited and what we could see was hardly exciting. On the plus side the stops were clearly marked so we soon established we were on the right boat, it was a cheap way to travel and the sight of the conductor threading, cajoling and forcing her way through the crowd to collect the fares was an entertainment in itself.
The River of Kings, Bangkok
We disembarked at Tha Tein, made our way through a bazaar and emerged on the main road opposite Wat Pho, one of the largest and oldest temples in Bangkok.
We disembarked through a market, Tha Tien, Bangkok
We found the ticket office, collected our ‘free’ bottles of water and set out to explore.

Constructed in the 1790s, though there had been an earlier temple in the site, Wat Pho is also a teaching institution with one of the oldest schools of Thai massage.
The sixteen gates are guarded by Chinese giants brought to Thailand as ballast in ships. One (not the one below!) is reputedly a likeness of Marco Polo (and you may believe that if you wish).
Guardian of the Gates, Wat Pho, Bangkok
The southern part of the complex contains a working monastery, while the main attraction in the northern section is an enormous Reclining Buddha. At 46m long and 15m high it may be only half the size of the Chaukhtatgyi Buddha in Yangon but it is still big and is a much more elegant construction.

Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok
The head is serene and beautiful, whereas Chaukhtatgyi’s is reminiscent of Lily Savage.

Head of the Reclining Buddha
Wat Pho, Bangkok
On the feet, as always, are the 108 attributes of the Buddha…. 

The 108 attributes on the sole of Buddha's foot
Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok
…while around the walls are paintings depicting the life of the Buddha.
One of the paintings by the Reclining Buddha
Wat Pho, Bangkok
As well as the reclining Buddha there are four main halls, one central shrine,

Central Shrine, Wat Pho, Bangkok

....numerous courtyards,

Courtyard full of Buddhas, Wat Pho, Bangkok

.....several hundred Buddha images....

Assorted Buddhas, Wat Pho, Bangkok

... and 92 stupas, the small ones containing the ashes of members of the royal family,

Small Stupas, Wat Pho, Bangkok

.... the larger ones ashes of the Buddha himself.
Large Stupa, Wat Pho, Bangkok

If we preferred the Wat Pho Reclining Buddha we were less taken with the stupas. In Myanmar the best stupas are gently rounded yet still manage to soar into the sky, while these are angular and fussy.
Wat Pho, Bangkok
After a couple of hours we felt the need for refreshment. Outside the temple it was easy to find a pavement café. We lingered over a beer and then it was lunchtime so we ordered more beer and a plate of tempura chicken and vegetables with the inevitable sweet chilli dip. Lynne liked the notice in the Ladies toilet – so here it so for your amusement.

Notice in ladies' toilet
Restaurant near Wat Pho, Bangkok
The Royal Palace and Wat Phra Kaew are next door to Wat Pho, but they are surrounded by a high wall and the entrance is a lengthy walk along a road crammed with stalls selling tee-shirts and shoes, religious objects and coins, watches (old, new and ‘copy’), scarves and jewellery and much more beside.

Wat Phra Kaew (The Emerald Buddha Temple) was built in 1782 by King Rama I, the founder of the Chakri dynasty - the present King Bhumibol (Rama IX) is the 9th Chakri monarch - to enshrine the eponymous Buddha.

The 45cm tall statue was carved from a single piece of nephrite jade - ‘emerald’ refers only to its colour - and is the most venerated Buddha image in Thailand. It may be touched only by the king, who changes its gold vestments three times a year.

Lynne at Wat Phra Kaew, Bangkok

According to tradition it was made at Patna in 43BC and found its way to Thailand via Sri Lanka and Cambodia. [see the 2015 post The Story of the Emerald Buddha] The style of carving, however, suggests it was made in the 14th century in the Kingdom of Lanna in what is now northern Thailand. There is good evidence that it was taken to Luang Prabang in Laos in 1552 and thence to Vientiane, the new Laotian capital, in 1564. The future Rama I of Thailand sacked Vientiane in 1776 and brought the Buddha to Bangkok.
Wat Phra Kaew, Bangkok

You may sit on the floor inside the hall (provided you keep the soles of your feet pointing away from the statue) and pay your respects - which we did for a while - but taking a  photograph would have brought down the wrath of god, not to mention the security guards. From outside, though, there is no restriction.

The Emerald Buddha
Wat Phra Kaew , Bangkok 

The extensive Grand Palace fills the rest of the compound. It was the home of the Thai monarchs until Rama V built Dusit Palace at the start of the 20th century and is still used for major state occasions including coronations - though it is 60 years since Thailand last had one of those.

We wandered round the various halls, and viewed the state apartments some of which are built in a vaguely European style….

Grand Palace, Bangkok
…. and some of which are not.
Grand Palace, Bangkok
After a couple of hours Lynne was flagging and sat in the shade while I went to see the extensive collection of armour and armaments in the Emerald Buddha Museum.

After that I was flagging too. We paused for a refreshing coconut before returning to our hotel. The boat was even more crowded than in the morning, packed with workers, schoolchildren, tourists, families with small children and a whole scout troop.
A refreshing coconut, Bangkok
Later, showered and rejuvenated we strode out into the warm night to sample Bangkok’s famed street food. Even along the four-lane racetrack outside the hotel there was plenty of choice. As we arrived it started raining and despite the stall holders’ hurried work with umbrellas and tarpaulins we judged it better to retreat into a small restaurant. The staff were friendly, the beer was cold, Lynne’s fried grouper with mango was good and my chicken with coconut and lemongrass was well-flavoured but I would have sacrificed some of the sauce for a bit more chicken – I suppose you get what you pay for.

The rain had stopped by the time we had finished eating and we strolled a little way down the road to the bridge over the Khlong Saen Saeb, Bangkok’s last remaining canal.


Myanmar, Land of Gold


Saturday, 24 November 2012

Inle Lake (2), Watching People Work and a Myanmar Winery: Part 11 of Myanmar, Land of Gold

In the morning the lake had vanished. By the time we had eaten breakfast the mist was beginning to relent and the light on the reappearing lake promised another fine warm day – once it got going.

The morning mist begins to lift, Lake Inle
Sue and the boatman arrived at 9 and we set off towards Inthein, a village a kilometre or two up a creek which empties into the lake near the stilt villages we had visited yesterday.
The fisherman had been out since sunrise. They were far too picturesque to ignore and although I wrote about them in yesterday’s post, I cannot resist inserting another photo.....
Another fisherman, Lake Inle

 ....or two.

Yet another fisherman, Lake Inle

Our canoe skipped across the placid surface of the lake and made good progress up the creek despite the fast-flowing current. The vegetation grows thickly on either side and Lonely Plant describes the trip as being reminiscent of Apocalypse Now – a spell broken by the tourist sanctuary of Inthein. That is over-dramatic, life beside the creek looks far from threatening and anyway we passed a craft village en route.

Life beside the creek on the way to Inthein

We disembarked through a crowd of tourist stalls and strolled through the village passing the school, several cafés and the empty market place (Inthein is another home of the 5-day Market). We crossed a bridge below which people were beating their washing clean on the rocks, and entered another long arcade of stalls selling scarves, blankets, ornaments, carved wooden panels (which looked like they had come from monasteries), tee-shirts and assorted religious objects, including, slightly bizarrely, boxed sets of nativity characters. The manufacturers had evidently skimped on their homework - pigs were rarely present in Jewish stables!

Arriving at Inthein

Finally breaking free from the commercial world we entered an area covered with ancient stupas, many in poor repair.

Sue, Lynne and an ancient, if dilapidated, stupa
It is believed that Alaung Sithu, a 12th century King of the Bagan Empire began the stupa building here as he did in many other parts of his empire. Some years ago the government started knocking down the most dilapidated (and often oldest) and rebuilding them with modern materials. Fortunately pressure from better informed tourists stopped this vandalism and they are now committed to stabilising and, where appropriate, restoring rather than rebuilding. There is obviously much work to do.

A rebuilt stupa among the old and dilapidated, Inthein

The stupas climb a gentle hill topped by a small temple. Those at the base are the oldest but they have been added to over time and around the temple there are many new stupas – not rebuilds this time, but genuine new stupas.
New stupas at the top of the hill, Inthein

The temple was nothing special as Myanmar temples go…..

In the temple at the top of the hill, Inthein
….. though it is pleasantly situated, and it is easy to see why Alaung Sithu was taken with the natural beauty of the place.

Hibiscus, Inthein
(for Siân, who appreciates a picture of botanical interest)
We walked back through the forest.

Following Sue back through the forest, Inthein

Watched from a distance by his mother and grandmother a chubby, naked three-year-old was playing beside a stream. Using the red bowl to water his slide and keep the mud slippy he was happily whizzing down and climbing back up so he could whizz down again.

Fun on a mud-slide, Inthein
In the village we paused for a cup of tea at a café recently opened by a friend of Sue. We only wanted a drink but we read the menu, and a depressing sight it was, too: pasta, pizza, French fries, Spanish omelettes, the lowest common denominators of tourist taste.

Back on the boat we headed downstream and stopped at a silversmith’s. It is always good to watch craftsmen at work and we would have liked a closer look at the finished products but high pressure sales staff made browsing difficult.

Making silver jewellery near Inthein

Returning to the lake we found ourselves in a busy district with lots of buildings and many boats whizzing between them. We paused for lunch at the Golden Moon Restaurant which was packed with tourists. Lynne had Shan Noodle Soup, Sue had a lake fish with watercress and I did not have hot and sour noodle soup with pork as my order became lost in the busyness of the restaurant. A second attempt at ordering proved more fruitful. On leaving we paused to inspect the wine rack displaying half a dozen offerings from a local winery. Unlike Vietnamese wines which are made from grapes of unspecified varieties [I have since learned they are made from Cardinal grapes - a variety better suited to producing table grapes and raisin] eked out with mulberry juice, this winery had invested in classic European vines like Shiraz and Sauvignon Blanc. I remained reluctant to pay £20 for a Myanmar wine, but Sue quietly noted our interest.

Busy, busy. Lake Inle
Our next stop was at a silk and lotus weaving workshop. Silk is familiar stuff (see Hotan for the whole story) but we were unaware that fibre can be made from the versatile lotus plant. A smiling girl demonstrated how she scored and then gently broke the stalks, before easing the two sections apart. Between them appeared thin, glistening filaments which she twisted together to form a fibre. It looked easy done by an expert, but I suspect it is a great deal harder than it appears.
Teasing out fibres from lotus stalk, Lake Inle
The blacksmith’s was a short boat ride away. One lad sat atop the bellows and pumped with two hands while a sweaty group of youths hammered away at red-hot iron. Some bare-footed and others in flip-flops they were blissfully ignorant of what we would regard as normal safety precautions, and would doubtless stay in their state of innocence until someone got hurt. All this activity was happening inside a scrum of tourists, but in contrast to the silversmith's no one was making an effort to sell the many artefacts lining the walls.
Working the red hot iron, Lake Inle
Moving on to watch yet another group of workers, we stopped at a cheroot factory. Half a dozen girls sat cross-legged on the floor rolling cheroots so fast it was impossible to follow the process, though leaves were involved as were shreds of tobacco and a stick around which the finished article was formed. Sue was reluctant to be drawn on their ages, but they looked like they should still be in school. Their youthful, nimble fingers must make a thousand a day for their basic pay, making more allows them to earn bonuses. The girls looked serious and seemed unnaturally quiet as they concentrated on the task. Then a New Zealand couple brought in their toddler and provoked a rustle of conversation and an audible cooing.

Making cheroots, Lake Inle
After a hard afternoon watching people work we returned to our hotel, pausing, yet again, to photograph the implausibly picturesque fisherman – though this chap has an outboard. The ‘chalets’ of our hotel are visible behind him
The very last Lake Inle fisherman photo. Promise.
A newly arrived Japanese coach party had been assigned to the ‘chalets’ around ours. The walls were paper thin, and we could hear every word of the conversations on both sides, and parts of those from further away.
A dinner gong clanged and they all trooped off. We followed a little later, heading for the same restaurant as yesterday. It was not worth it, the food was still dull and it was busier today and the service struggled to cope. We drank beer, but they also offered local wine, again at around £20 a bottle. As yesterday the walk back through the moonlit forest made the whole evening worthwhile.
We returned to find the Japanese coach party singing campfire songs round a pile of blazing logs. They retired to bed a little after midnight – not all of them entirely sober – but settled down quickly. They left early the next morning, their alarm calls progressing down the line of chalets, though missing us out. It did not matter we had heard it anyway – not that we wanted an early start.
When Sue arrived she commented on our interest in the wine and suggested we might like to swap the morning programme for a visit to a winery. Sue’s attitude to being a guide – find out what interests the clients and react accordingly – was a pleasing contrast to her counterpart in Mandalay.
We took the boat back to Nyaungshwe, transferred to a car and drove to the Red Mountain Winery, which sits on a hillside a few kilometres out of town.
The Red Mountain Winery, Nyaungshwe
A girl showed us round and while we looked at some very new machinery and stainless steel fermentation vats, she told us the story of the winery. The owner is a local man who searched for jade in the rivers some 50 km north of here and found enough to make his fortune. He decided to spend his money on building a state of the art winery and employing a French winemaker.
Stainless steel vats, Red Mountain Winery, Nyaungshwe
Most of Myanmar is too hot, and the wet season too wet, for wine growing. Although the Inle Lake area has no winter – or not one we would recognise – the elevation means cool nights in January and February, which is harvest time here.
The grape varieties used have been selected after experimentation with the climate and soil type and in the tasting room we sampled four of their surprisingly large range of wines. 9.30 was a little earlier than I am used to drinking wine (honest) but they were only tasting sized samples.

Vineyards, Red Mountain Winery, Nyaungshwe

The sauvignon blanc was remarkable. Despite the hot climate they had retained the sauvignon’s clean acidity, but the fruit had gone missing. The rosé was as crisp and juicy as rosé can be, while the shiraz/tempranillo was dark and smoky with good fruit and tannins. I was impressed by the overall quality, only the Late Harvest – thin and lacking in sweetness – was a definite miss. I bought a bottle of the Rosé for 8000 Kyat (£6.40), prohibitively expensive for most locals, but reasonable for its quality by British supermarket standards. We shared it with friends after we returned home.
Our final stop before the airport was Shwe Yaunghwe Monastery. The short journey took a little longer than expected as we were held up trying to pass a cart transporting the largest pig I have ever seen.
Trying to overtake a pig on a cart, Nyaungshwe
The monastery was another old teak construction. Inside children were chanting sutras under the supervision of a monk – at least most were, but there was some inattention, even indiscipline going on in the back row.

Chanting sutras, Shwe Yaunghwe Monastery

All work stopped at the arrival of some special guests, saffron robed monks visiting from Thailand. Having disrupted the lessons they then posed obligingly in the unusual oval windows for the tourists outside.
Posing visitors, Shwe Yaunghwe Monastery
We flew back to Yangon and in the evening visited our favourite Shan restaurant and ate their excellent fried dumplings. Nearby a small stage had been set up and a monk of some importance arrived to give a speech. We stopped to watch and, as is the Burmese way, we were invited into the seating area and offered bottles of water. We declined, our limited (all right, non-existent) Burmese meant anything but a short stop was fruitless.
In late November we should not have been surprised to see a local shop gearing up for Christmas, though most of Yangon’s citizens have a very hazy idea as to what Christmas is. With darkness falling the temperature had dropped marginally below 30º and I suspect Father Christmas was a little warm in that big red suit.

Santa feeling a little overdressed for the climate, Yangon
The following morning, a final run at Scott’s Market provided us with some last minute presents before our flight to Bangkok.
Myanmar, Land of Gold