Monday, December 13, 2010

Thailand over land and sea

It’s the diversity and variety that does it.

The last month has given us an amazing range of experiences and sights in Thailand -from huge modern cities to ancient city-sites, from forests and rice farms to islands and caves; we have seen diverse communities from well-heeled to impoverished in Bangkok, to the different ethnic communities ofthe Hillside Tribes in the mountainous northern areas on the border with Myanmar (Burma). We have seen night life ranging from the notorious Patpong Road in Bangkok (definitely not to be detailed!) to the lady-boys in Bangla Road of Patong (Phuket) to the famous Chiang Mai night markets to quiet local eating houses far north in Thaton – and very quiet evenings on the boat (punctuated by skipper’s selection of Francoise Hardy, Chris de Burgh, Neil Diamond and Percy Sledge – some people are beyond help)!

All this we found while travelling from the mountainous Thailandborder with Myanmar to Phuket Island and then on to a sea entry into Malaysia at Langkawi Island. There was so much, that in sharing our travels with you we know that we cannot do it justice.Nonetheless, here is the story(sub-titled or bolded so you can identify sections to read or skip!), trying to capture some of the amazing sights and special moments….

The plan was to join Sandy, Patrick and Ros in Bangkok; we had just over 3 weeks in total to see Bangkok and environs and the Chiang Mai area, thenon to Phuket and sail them down to Langkawi in Malaysia. Only the first night’s accommodation was pre-booked and no flights or other transport had been arranged: we organised everything as needs arose and plans developed.

Bangkok: amazing, fascinating, stimulating city!Poverty is seen alongside wealth, there is less litter and clearer skies than we expected, hectic and busy traffic yet very controlled and disciplined.

The city’s appeal is strengthened by its contrasts: walk past the expensive Erewan hotel and major fashion houses towards the street corner amidst the noise of 6 lanes of traffic that pass alongside each way and three overhead bridges that carry pedestrian traffic and two separate train services – and thenon the street corner hear beautiful Thai music and find a Buddhist shrine with dozens of locals coming in to pray, light incense and candles, or make a donation for beautiful petite Thai dancers to bless their love-life through elegant classical dance.

A trip down a canal on a longtail boat was another highlight particularly to see how people live alongside the river but also for the locks and for the appeal of these longtails.

In some areas, large-bore pipes pumped water back into the canal from the adjacent residential area (the residential areas were below water level); elsewhere we saw homes on stilts with floors only just above water level, while in other areas they did not have the luxury of stilts:picture a man sitting on his outside table happily swinging his gum-booted legs above the water that coveredthe floors of his house.... at other homes, washing was on the lines and life carried on despite the floors being awash with flood-waters.

All this is in contrast to the fantastic statues, gold stupa and rich jewels of the Grand Palace…alongside the food sellers where we ate delicious food in surroundings that would never tempt us to stop in our home country. We are constantly amazed that no one becomes ill from the primitive wash-up and food disposal facilities… which are nevertheless obviously effective.

Always fascinated by the exotic, the unknown and not-yet understood, we were delighted to see many monks: at work in the temples, on the streets, on ferries, going about their lives. We were told that all Buddhist boys or young men spend at least one week (but generally a couple of months) as a monk, in privation to understand the lot of the under-privileged. This perspective and the frequent sightings of young novice monks (just young boys growing up in another culture) took away some of the mystique surrounding monks but lent some clearer understanding of this culture.
You are regularly being confronted with trying to understand and explore other cultures when travelling in SE Asia. Near Bangkok is the ancient city of Ayutthaya – a capital city of a previous empire that ruled the area…Acres and acres of temples that were built / ransacked / re-built over centuries of warfare and invasion and counter-invasion with neighbouring kingdoms.

A place under a tree to let the ambience quietly seep into your consciousness is one of the best ways to feel these ancient cities. Centuries from now, what will tourists make of the remains of Bangkok or, for that matter, Pretoria - our home town?

Chiang Mai in northern Thailand is a very touristy city, but nonetheless you are still able to imagine what it must have been like living in the old City surrounded by the moat and the huge walls, with a Wat on almost every street. Today, there is always a market happening somewhere, the best being on Sundays when they close many of the streets of the old town to traffic and you walk the miles of stalls and musicians -with your head turning and your neck twisting and your mouth bargaining and your arms carrying increasingly loaded packets! Whilst picking from all the foods on offer at a selection of food stalls, or sitting back for a foot massage, it is amazing to lift your eyes and see the unmistakable lines of the roof of a Wat and realise that the market is in the precious grounds of a temple - very unusual to our way of thinking.

Having the good fortune to be in contact with a young Lahu man, Lek, whose father, a Christian pastor, runs a tiny start-up orphanage way north of Chiang Mai, we spent two nights in the Thaton area, close to the Myanmar border. The Lahu are one of several Hill Tribe communities that live in the hills in northern Thailand, having apparently originated in China then ended up in Thailand after being chased down via Burma (Myanmar). They have their own culture and language and many earn income from their specific range of handcrafts. Lek and his father took us to a Lahu village where we were able to buy some craftwork directly from the villagers, then to a Thai military outpost on the Myanmar border, where it became apparent that borders of countries are often fluid: some of the military encampments on the top of each hill in our view were flying Thai flags, where two weeks previously they had been Burmese military posts. Lek’s family honoured us witha feast for lunch, including “black chicken”, a dish made from black-footed chicken where the meat has black streaks in it: this is tasty (just like white chicken) but in Chinese culture is regarded as a “medicine” as it is believed to possess special healing properties.

Reality checks!

How did we do these land travels? This was part of the adventure. We walked and walked; used scooters; got to know the local transport options well, early on; became relatively adept at understanding train routes and underground trains, learnt about which taxi / tuk-tuk/ shuttle to take when and where. We had an experience at every new abode, where we kept our costs down to below US$20 per double room: all had own bathrooms and (mostly) the rooms were clean; sometimes one had to lift the shower hose high to encourage the water heater to kick in, at other times strike the heater a sharp blow with a heavy object to achieve this result ; sometimes re-position the fridge to be able to reach the electrical trip switches near the roof; sometimes the loo and shower occupied the same 1.00 square metres and it was best to keep loo paper outside.

But at least there was loo paper; trips to the lavatory outside of places of accommodation necessitated familiarising yourself (especially the ladies) to different systems and methods, which were mastered early on and grown not to dislike.... except for uncomfortably saturated floors and what then to do with your clothing and bags? Personal hygiene was interesting on the street too: women unabashedly groom themselves and each other, to the extent of looking for nits in friends’ hair!

And another part of the adventure was being caught in a scam. After having read the warning, we STILL fell prey to the tuk-tuk drivers’ “You cannot go to the Palace today, they are having a ceremony. Come with us... for only 10 Baht we will show you the Golden Buddha then take you to...” (showing us on the map). Great! And the Wat with the Golden Buddha WAS actually a great visit, with the school Principal from over the way explaining so much, then promoting the concept of supporting local industries by using TAT (Tourism Authority of Thailand) for doing bookings and buying local products, e.g. jewellery and tailored goods. Thus it started... the trip to TAT, who were angry that we did not plan our whole holiday through them (“but we will give you big discounts”) and the trip to the tailors and jewellers, where the tuk-tuk drivers became angry at our lack of participation. The outcome was that we each lost about US$15 in the price we over-paid for rooms for the next 2 nights. We subsequently met tourists who used TAT to arrange all their transport and accommodations for weeks of travel, and it cost them thousands of Euros in over-payment.

Sailing again

Then we all had time (some guests would say “did time”, depending on how much they feel imprisoned by the confinement) onKetoro, as we sailedour friends from Phuket Island (Thailand) to Langkawi Island (Malaysia). We anchored off islands where we could get to beautiful hongs, lagoons and beaches (this time we were very familiar with our modes of transport… our trusty dinghy and croc canoe); we had sundowners on board and we had sundowners at lovely small pubs on islands (often featuring Bob Marley crooning in the background!)

And weAGAIN ticked the boxes for a lot of “firsts”. On the first day, we caught a jet ski (well, he caught us, the idiot…. and took our fishing lure away, attached to his handlebars… visualise his grimaces and Rolf’s gesticulations!), and then caught terra firma in the form of an underwater rock (or something, obviously unseen) when we stopped to buy prawns from a longtail boat and the fishing lure sank down. Getting your line free of an unseen huge object whilst on a boat that is being carried by a current, requires carefully going in astern without getting said line wrapped around the prop; turns out the task is impossible, but one does one’s best before admitting defeat and cutting the line.... the prawns were delicious.

We enjoyed seeing fish walking on water and birds surfing (respectively: pipe-like fish that shoot out the water then tail-walk or hop for hundreds of metres and birds that find rest from the arduous task of flying on bits of floating polystyrene or wood; when the water is rough it is fun watching the birds surfing this way!). We sometimes stopped way off land and simply jumped in to cool off... once being so audacious as all of us leaving the boat simultaneously... a “Look Ma, no driver” scenario that happily did not leave us floundering and abandoned.At times we played classical music to soar over the seas and call the whales or dolphins back to Thailand…. (figured Rolf’s Percy wouldn’t do it!)
We had our first glass and plate breakage from sliding off the table in a rolly sea... catamarans are pretty stable boats, and owners of monohulls are constantly amazed at our (non-plastic) crockery and our lack of need to put everything away, in most seas. Until the day we anchored at Phi Phi Island and sat down for lunch in a civilised fashion, on a calm sea.... and then an IDIOT driver of a day-tripper speed-boat came by close, at speed, causing such a huge wake that, despite many hands leaning forward to grab what they could from the skidding crockery, a glass and plate left us.

We caught our smallest fish ever (two were returned to their watery home, to warn their mates, while another two actually made delicious dinner on the braai!) and also our biggest catch... a huge fishing net (and the 40 ton fishing boat to which it was attached!) It took some underwater work by Rolf and somewhat anxious boat manoeuvring by Irene to sort that one out; the crew of the fishing boat were themselves anxiously watching to see whether a large blade was being used to free the net but we managed to get the net intact off the saildriveleg and the rudder blade where it had caught.
Another first:we did some dentistry on the boat ... Irene gave Rolf a temporary tooth from a baseline of nearly zero with the help of the on-board first aid kit!

Loi  Krathong

Thai people have frequent celebrations and festivals, one of these being the LoiKrathong Festival when they give thanks for water and all they receive from it, by lighting lanterns and sending them skywards and also floating candle-lit boats (krathongs) of banana leaves. We were fortunate to be in Chiang Mai for the build-up to this festival, and joined in by sending up our own lantern dedicated to our departed family and friends, while on the actual night of LoiKrathong we were anchored off a beautiful island and floated three of our own home-made candle-boats. For days afterwards, when at sea we often saw floating remains of other Krathong, the festival having clearly been celebrated on islands and the mainland all over the country.
There is just so much in SE Asia. So much to see and do, remember and understand, hear and taste, plan and work out. There are just so many areas to visit to see so many exotic places, to feel and experience so many happenings, of such a diverse nature and magnitude. It is just astounding and breath-taking. Even the most mundane activity still results in the senses being bombarded with visual and auditory input of an exotic nature and demands huge involvement. This can be very tiring but the nature of the holiday does not allow any time-out!

And it is really while recalling it all that the scope of it dawns and becomes mind-blowing. While you are doing it and seeing it you are…. well, doing it and seeing it, and thinking about it and allowing your senses to absorb what they can. Reflecting on the whole and trying to isolate the experiences and your feelings about them at the end of a period of travel (in which, each day, you were exposed to so much of such great exotic-ness) is when it all becomes tricky…