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…..



Saturday, 21 November 2015

Following the Mae Klong to Samut Sangkhram and the Gulf of Thailand: Part 14 of Thailand and Laos

We were up early and on the road before nine, heading south towards the gulf of Thailand and the seaside.
 
Several stops were planned, but not until we had followed the Mae Klong River out of Kanchanaburi Province and across the flat land of Ratchaburi to Samut Songkhram, the smallest of Thailand’s 78 provinces and at 418km² only slightly larger than Rutland.
 
Thailand and with our day's journey from Kanchanaburi to the seaside marked in red
 
The low lying land near the river mouth is criss-crossed by waterways and the home of several floating markets. We visited Tha Kha, one of the smallest and more difficult to get to; largely unvisited by tourists it remains a genuine local market.
 
Parking some way down the road from a bridge, we walked past a line of shops and stalls mainly selling foodstuffs.
 
Tha Kha floating market, Samut Songkhram
 
The market was small, but colourful and undoubtedly real, we saw no other foreigners.
 
Tha Kha floating market, Samut Songkhram
 
Chart hired a boat for a gentle circular potter through the canals. The water may have been scummy but we enjoyed gliding peacefully past paddy fields and coconuts, well mostly we did….
 
Through the scummy waters of the canals, Tha Kha, Samut Songkhram
…One of those legendary, though possibly true, statistics is that more people are killed annually by falling coconuts than by shark attacks. This may be encouraging to those venturing into the sea around Australia or South Africa, but on a Thai canal, where the probability of encountering a Great White is vanishingly small, it is of little comfort. Even a near miss could punch a hole through the boat, immersing us in unpleasant water of unknown depth.
 
Potentially murderous coconuts, Tha Kha, Samut Songkhram
 
Despite our fears we returned unbombarded by nuts. Chart left us to our own devices for a while and we had a further look round before, perversely, buying a couple of (safely harvested) coconuts. There is no better drink on a scorchingly hot morning.
 
Lynne takes pre-emptive revenge on a coconut
Tha Kha, Samut Songkhram

Walking back through the stalls with Chart we stopped at a business making coconut based sweets. Being Saturday there was no production and little to see so Chart suggested we look round the owner’s house, which was above the manufacturing area, behind a small menagerie.

Removing our shoes we climbed the wide stairs to the first floor accommodation of a large rambling house of dark, polished wood. Despite our misgivings the inhabitants seemed to think it perfectly normal for a couple of complete strangers to be walking round their home.

There was, as always, a family shrine...
 
Family Shrine, Tha Kha, Samut Songkhram
.....but in Thailand it is also common to find a royal shrine, with pictures of the King (taken some time ago, he is much older than that [update: he died 13/10/2016 aged 88]) his queen consort and offspring.
 
Royal Shrine, Tha Kha, Samut Songkhram
 
There was little furniture; South East Asians seem happy to sit, kneel or squat on the floor. Even the kitchen had no table - no one would think of working at the height we do. There is ample storage and equipment, but the cooker and sink are at floor level.
 
Foodie shrine, Tha Kha, Samut Songkhram

A short drive away, King Rama II Memorial Park consists of a museum, which was closed, and traditional Thai houses in pleasant parkland.
 
Rama II Memorial Park, Samut Songkhram
 
King Rama II, who was born near here, was a patron of the arts and the exhibits reflect that. Downstairs in the main house, next to the obligatory shop, a lesson in traditional dance was in progress.
 
Dancing lesson, Rama II Memorial Park, Samut Songkhram
 
Next door were models of local fishing craft while upstairs was an ethnographic exhibition where models showed aspects of daily life during Rama II's reign (1809-1824). Male and female roles were strictly defined, as Lynne noted (a little sourly, I thought) men worked, drank, wrestled and played games, while women raised children, cooked, sewed and took trouble with their appearance.
 
Fishing boat, Rama II Memorial Park, Samut Songkhram
 
Walking back to the car park we passed a pond with the most magnificent lily pads.
 
Lily pads, Rama II Memorial Park, Samut Songkhram

 
20 minutes away is Bang Kung Camp with its statues of boxers – Thai boxing involves kicking as well as punching. The camp was an important outpost of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya during Burmese incursions.
 
Thai Boxers, Bang Kung Camp

On the same site, Wat Bang Kung is small temple so overgrown by a banyan tree that if the door had not been hacked clear it would have been entirely encased.

Wat Bang Kung, encased in a banyan tree

 
Inside is one of those Buddha images that people like to cover with gold leaf. Unlike in Burma, they allow women to apply the gold, which is, I suppose, a step forward in terms of equality but I wonder how impressed the Buddha would have been by anyone believing they gained merit by putting gold leaf on a statute. (Yes, I know. It is totally inappropriate for a lapsed member of the Church of England to tell Buddhists how to practice Buddhism)
 
Wat Bang Kung Buddha image with a woman applying gold leaf

Once you have applied your gold leaf you should nobly share the merit gained by banging a bell. Lynne was keen to do this, despite not actually applying any gold leaf. One of the bells was part of a repurposed artillery shell, common in Vietnam and Laos where such things are easily come by, but rare in Thailand which has enjoyed 70 years of peace.

 
Lynne shares her merit, Wat Bang Kun

It was now lunchtime, and little further on we pulled off the road into a ‘resort hotel’, two words guaranteed to make my heart sink.
 
A tour group was already in residence in the open air restaurant pleasantly situated beside the Mae Klong River. We perused the menu more in hope than expectation, selecting fish cakes and squid.
 
The fish cakes arrived first.  The flakes of firm, fresh fish accompanied by a fiery dipping sauce exceeded our expectations by a wide margin. The squid turned out to be a cook-your-own meal in a fish shaped boiler. We have encountered these before and it is a tricky business. Raw squid is tough, overcooked squid resembles a squash ball, and the window between the two is small and sometimes elusive. Experience has taught us that once the broth is boiling, it is best to turn off the flame and let the squid poach gently in the cooling liquid. For once we got it spot on, the squid was a fresh as those we used to enjoy at Maria's in Portugal, and the broth was subtle, lemony and in every way delightful. Our initial misgivings had been entirely misplaced, this was possibly the best meal of the trip, indeed one of our best lunches full stop.
 
Fish cakes and squid beside the Mae Klong River
 
Well fed we continued south to the coast and the city of Samut Songkhram. Near here in 1811 the wife of a fisherman gave birth to a pair of conjoined twins, Chang and Eng. Locally they were known as 'The Chinese Twins' as their father was from Thailand's Chinese community, but when they were 'discovered' in 1829 by a Scottish entrepreneur and travelled the world as part of a freak show they became known as The Siamese Twins, a name which has stuck to their condition ever since.
 
In many ways the brothers were admirable. They took control of their lives and in 1839 they found they liked North Carolina and had enough money to settle there and buy a farm. They became American citizens, adopted the surname Bunker and married two local sisters. Between them they had 21 children. There are several questions I would love to ask about this, and maybe Chang and Eng (and their wives) would reply that it is none of my business. Their 1,500 or so living descendants meet at regular reunions.
 
Chang and Eng painted by an unknown artist in Paris in 1835 or 6
The painting is in the North Carolina Collection gallery, borrowed by me from Wikipedia
 
Other aspects of their life were less admirable; like most North Carolina farmers at that time, they were slave owners. The Bunkers supported the confederacy in the American Civil War, support which cost them much of their wealth. They died within hours of each other in 1874.
 
Samut Songkhram’s market is also, in its own way, a freak show. Strung alongside the railway track outside the station, some of the merchandise and parts of the stalls have to be moved every time a train comes through.
 
Samut Songkhram 'railway' market

The market sells an immense variety of goods and foods; we particularly liked the huge tiger prawns. The tiger prawns on menus all over the world come from Thailand and its neighbours. They look magnificent, but for both texture and flavour, I actually prefer the smaller cold water prawns of the north Atlantic.
Tiger prawns and other things, Samut Songkhram 'railway' market
 
The station had been closed for several months for engineering work so the market had been spared the continual moving and we did not get to see how it all works. I wonder if the locals might come to realise that a market uninterrupted by trains is a good idea and go somewhere else!
 
From Samut Songkhram we headed down the coast to Cha Am for two days lazing on the beach.

Thailand and Laos
  
               Part 1: Bangkok and the Train North


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