Sunday, 15 March 2015

A tuk tuk to the temples (12 -15 March 2015)

If I am walking each day it makes sense to do it in the huge Angkor Archeological Park rather than the random streets of Siem Reap so I have invested in a seven day ticket to the temples. I catch a tuk tuk into the park which gives me the equivalent of an early morning Pilates session as I strengthen my core trying as hard as I can to actually stay in the thing as it rattles along the uneven roads and speed bumps. Why do I always get the maverick driver but perhaps they're all the same, I've not met a slow careful one yet!

I've just done day three so am becoming a bit of an expert on my bas reliefs.... Well not really but they are nice to look at! The whole complex is really busy. It's funny how your mind remembers things differently though. Both Ant and I seem to remember the place where you buy your tickets as super efficient with barcode controlled Disneyworld type entrance gates. If that were ever the case I can only assume that it broke down and they replaced it with the usual melee of ticket booths and the scrum of tuk tuks as they wait for their passengers to get said tickets. Certainly not the efficient machine I thought I remembered. And funnily enough walking round the park I seem to be the only person ever stopped to have their ticket checked.... I guess they assume that big tour groups are automatically honest... Or I look like some hippy wandering around on her own, a more likely explanation. The parade of coaches, taxis and tuk tuks into the park is relentless, and the tuk tuk queues forming at the pinch points like going through the narrow gates into certain temples are reminiscent of the Dartford Crossing in rush hour.

And the snake of people going into some of the more popular temples is like the Bejing ring road during rush hour.... I am really surprised by the small proportion of Western tourists about and amazed at the huge number of Chinese. But the sheer size of the place overall and individual temples means that they absorb so many people it really isn't too crowded. So far I have concentrated on the places Swanley Travel will recommend on their forthcoming escorted tour.... Angkor Wat, the main must see, Angkor Thom, the one with the faces and Ta Phrom of Tomb Raider.

Swanley Travel clients are not known for their sightseeing patience, indeed one of the Company's specialities is speed sightseeing, so I think this will be more than enough! I also paid a visit to the National Museum here to see if that was worth a recommendation, but again, Swanley Travel clients base their liking of most museums on the quality of the gift shop, so this one probably won't make the cut... But on my times when I m just wandering the streets in town I am beginning to see where all the new development is. The east bank of the river is filling up, I remember it being empty, with cool new chic hotels and restaurants as is the French Quarter where the FCC is located. They are certainly giving the FCC a run for its money. But I see that the FCC is about to go through a complete renovation as well as an extension with more hotel rooms across the road. It's probably time, it's still very stylish and always smells amazing as the oil burners are always lit but is slightly on the tired side now. There is a new Hard Rock Cafe just opened as well as a Costa Coffee, but both very sympathetically designed so fit in very well. And no sign of any Golden Arches... There are some new, extremely stylish shops and spas too with other buildings still going up. But it looks like none of them are going to be nasty high rises, I hope not.
Yesterday was a very busy day in town. There was a huge procession with thousands and I mean thousands, of people going through early afternoon. Traffic was at a standstill for almost an hour. But a la Thailand if the roads were at a standstill, the bikes just took to the pavement! It started with the uniformed local school kids band, followed by lots of women in white crimplene (never good in this climate...) suits, followed by older school kids carrying the national flag followed by what looked like loads of office workers carrying the national flag followed by hundreds and hundreds of orange and maroon clad monks then followed by what looked like all the women in town in white blouses and black skirts followed by all the OAP women in town in white shirts with shaved heads followed by a mix of other I assume, less mobile people in a huge parade of tuk tuks and cars. There were a few floats in between, one of of flower covered elephant. Everyone was carrying lotus flowers and most had a picture of a man wearing orange monks' robes and glasses.

It was such a big production I assumed every one would know exactly what it was all about. The girl in the bar I repaired to for a cool drink (diet coke, honest) had no clue. The hotel staff when I got back had no clue apart from it must be a Buddhist Celebration... even I could work that one out. The nearest I got was a waiter I asked at the side of the road. His English was pretty bad (but better than my one word of Khmer) but he seemed to be saying that it was a celebration of the guy in the picture wearing the monks robes that everyone was carrying who many many many years ago had discovered the Khmer language. Frankly it seemed improbable, the guy was wearing glasses so it couldn't have been that ancient! But improbable or not he was pretty close. The joy of Google found this:
Samdech Sangha Raja Jhotañano Chuon Nath (Khmer: ជួន ណាត [cuən naːt]; 11 March 1883 – 25 September 1969) is the late Kana Mahanikaya Supreme Patriarch of Cambodia. Amongst his achievements is his effort in conservation of the Khmer language in the form of the Khmer dictionary. Nath's other contribution to Cambodia include the current national anthem, Nokor Reach. Nokor Reach was written to correspond to the motto of the nation, "Nation, Religion, King" as well as demonstrate the grandeur and the mighty past of the Khmer nation. This phrase is on the Cambodian visa.

Amazing what you learn whilst travelling, just a pity most of the locals didn't have a clue! I assume the parade was today as it was the nearest Saturday to his birthday.
And then while trying to understand all about him whilst drinking my Diet Coke, it was all lights, camera and action as what looked like a music video was being filmed in the streets.

And on the way back to the hotel early evening I discover mass aerobic dance sessions. On the next block to the hotel is a big building extolling the virtues of the Cambodian People's Party. Each evening it appears to get taken over for the good health of the people.... while Hun Sen, the long serving leader looks on benevolently...
Prices here are ok too, even with the appallingly weak pound against the dollar. All transactions here are in dollars, with your change, anything less than a dollar is given back to you in grubby Riel notes. No coins circulate here. Interestingly water is much more expensive than in Thailand, but in a balance that suits me, wine is much cheaper and better! I am living high on the hog, eating at the expensive FCC where last night's dinner eaten under the stars was of smoked salmon and tomato bruschetta, FCC Salad of chicken and Parma ham and two glasses of a good Chilean Rose and it came in at just £12.20... Result!

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Location:Siem Reap, Cambodia

Friday, 13 March 2015

What's Wat in Siem Reap... (10 - 12 March 2015)

If you have two weeks holiday and want to decide where to spend it, two weeks in Siem Reap may not be an obvious choice, but that's exactly where I've rocked up for almost a fortnight. But don't worry I haven't gone temple crazy, I do have my reasons! My Thai visa, even though for a year still meant that I needed to report in to immigration after 90 days. I had heard stories that this could take all day as the new tourist visa rules meant that all those people who previously were whizzing about doing visa runs to the border were now crowding out the small immigration office on Samui. They are building a new one but it isn't finished..... I also needed to get to Cambodia ahead of time and needed enough time here to get a Vietnam visa. So all in all it made sense to get out here a couple of days ahead of when I really needed to be and also do an advance Swanley Travel recce for my VIP visitors expected soon. So am happily ensconced in the FCC Angkor and am equally happy wandering the streets and walking along the river. I am re discovering Pub Street, a great place to people watch and enjoy the pleasure of a glass of decent why why (I don't say thanks to the French very often, but this time thanks for the wine legacy...) and at only £2. Can't say I am missing Mont Clair wine yet... I am also just getting my bearings from the last time I was here and whilst I can't see any big developments it is definitely busier. But there is still that old charm of dirty streets, broken pavements, markets, backpacker children and backpacker adults. The bottom seems to have fallen out of the photocopied book business though I guess Kindle finally put paid to that although you can now download them cheaply at ROGUE, as you can download $2 movies there as well, creating another business failure out of the copy DVD market too! Big tour groups, although they will be here, are, I think tucked away in the bigger tourist hotels on the airport road when they are not "doing Angkor Wat". Most people just drop in here for a couple of days, do the temples and then leave. I seem to be doing the opposite..... And I am having to get used to the new traffic.

Unlike Thailand who drive on the left, I now have to remember to look the other way. Crossing the road is impossible at times until I recalled my old Vietnam training - take a deep breath and go, the sea of motorbikes should part around you.... So far so good... And the drivers here do seem a little slower than the Thai's. There are a few sets of traffic lights here too even sporting little green men at the crossing and unlike the Thai's the Cambodians do actually stop at red lights, a real novelty... On the way from the airport the driver explained the police stopping some motorbike riders who were being fined "one dollar" for not wearing their helmets. No mirror on your bike is also "one dollar" and not obeying a red light is also "one dollar". I wonder how many "one dollars" end up in the police pockets?
Yesterday I walked into the Angkor Park in the rush hour, all tourist life was in the traffic. Big coaches of Wendy Wu type Chinese tourists jammed into big coaches, streams of ten tuk tuks with groups of Travel Indochina type posher smaller group tourists, gorgeous independent travellers (as you find with Swanley Travel) in their own tuk tuks, rich American's wafting in from Raffles in their aircon limo's and the Germans and Swiss on their push bikes.... and me bringing up the rear in my flip flops. And that reminds me, my Jawbone UP told me recently that I had completed my thousandth flip flop mile in 88 days, way ahead of my 100 day target. I am now trying to pat my own back...
Today I walked through a bizarre sight in the park in front of the a Royal residence. I have never seen so many brides in my life. All being attended by cameras, video cameras, make up artists. Some looking graceful in traditional Khmer dress but most looking far from that in pretty bad Western ones. I do feel the poor girl below was rather badly advised.... Perhaps "My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding" is on tv here... I think it's all about getting the pictures, I think the ceremony itself follows on weeks if not months later.

But Siem Reap itself, although it has brash places like Pub Street, it also has lovely little lanes with some great shops and restaurants.

Oh and of course some big temples... I made my first visit this time this morning and unlike last time, about seven years ago, there was some water in the reflecting pool and here's the pic to prove it!

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Location:Siem Reap, Cambodia

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

From one party town to another (28 February - 4 March 2015)

I think I knew it was time to move on when I got my invitation to the third returning guest party at the Florist.... I asked how often they had them and they said "as we collect many returning guests" - I think maybe that lost something in the translation. So frock on I join the Brits group, Trevor and Gill from last year who have been here a few weeks and Sue and Tim who've been here a few days. Free drinks on offer but as usual no why why so I spend an evening on the Sang Som and Coke, the local rum. All I can say is I felt lots better than I deserved to the next day, still up and out walking by 8 am! It was quite a lively evening as this time many returning guests had been "collected".

But time to move on. As I have had a nice restful time at the Florist Resort I have decided to move to party central for 10 days, Chewang. There are beaches all around the island, each with their own style, some quiet, some isolated, some local, some six star. Chewang is the mad one, lots of bars, restaurants and shops. I am at the Briza Beach which is about a 10 minute walk to the start of the Chewang "strip" so I can safely say I can avoid the party but it will be nice to have a change of scene and a bigger choice of places to eat. And more importantly I am within a twenty minute walk of Tropical Murphy's and today is Sunday.... Roast dinner here I come!

The hotel is an interesting one. Most rooms here are built in blocks of two, one upstairs and one downstairs. Each is like a stand alone villa with big bedroom, indoor and outdoor bathroom, huge open air living room with daybeds, a plunge pool and even a separate outside loo. But it's a bit weird having one villa on top of the other! I am on the top floor so even manage a bit of a sea view. The rooms would have been the very latest in chic boutique hotel fashion at one time but now are slightly on the tired side, lots of dark wood and sandstone square sinks. But I had, after all those weeks in the Florist, forgotten the joy of hot water in the hand basin... One website describes the Briza as "One of the earliest fine design boutique resorts in Koh Samui, built in 2006." Damned by faint praise?

But it is so nice, even though I had pool access at the Florist, to have my own pool. No nappy less babies in this one.....

But I am being a bit picky here, had it retained its former glory I may be paying a bit more... I've got acres of my own space with sunny bits and shady bits and it's really quiet.
But why oh why do hotels still not provide decent wifi. The one here is a nuisance, if you don't use it for a while it goes off and you have to faff around logging in again which is never straight forward and can take ages. You can only have two logins at any one time so have to juggle between laptop, phone and iPads and i Touch. And the signal is so low most of the time as to be useless. One of these days they might realise that the background niggle you get from this messing about leaves a nasty taste and puts you off booking here again. Especially as the smallest little bars and restaurants have much faster much simpler access. It will all be on Tripadvisor...
Anyway, rant over!
Chaweng is a bit of a plane spotters paradise though, and as the odd American might ask "why did they put such a nice beach so close to an airport?". In the mornings it's like a ghost town. Mae Nam even at 8am was bustling with all the little food stalls open for business. Here everything is shut after their late night partying. Can't imagine the planes taking off every so often can be that welcome! Over the main beach they look so low sometimes.

But I can see why this beach was the first to be developed, it's a long sweeping, sheltered bay with fine powder white sand and shallow seas. The turquoise water makes it look postcard pretty. There are local women in the water quite a way out, waist deep with fishing rods catching someone's dinner. It is pretty well developed although most resorts are hidden by the palm trees and unlike other parts of Thailand such as Pattya and Phuket they are not allowed to build any tall buildings so it hasn't suffered the same "let's build ugly condo's for the Russians" development.
It's been interesting going on my morning walk as there is less easy access here to the green back roads and hills as there was in Mae Nam, they're all a bit further away. So my walks tend to be past closed shops and restaurants until I go up the back streets where all the local Thai population live and work with local shops and markets - they at least are open early morning.
The shops are all still here, very good fake designer bags, trainers, DVD's, you name it but now with a Central Department store in a sparkly new, surprisingly well designed for the environment shopping mall, everyone now has access to the real designer stuff as well as the fake... But there is always the delight of the 100 Baht (£2) shop for new togs...

Not everyone here is as hangover free as me though in this party town, this little fellow looks either spaced out or just dead as I nearly tread on him at 8.15 am just a little way along from Tropical Murphy's in the Main Street...

And my plans for partying every night won't be fulfilled today (4 March) - it's one of those Buddha Days today when no alcohol is available, could be a quiet night...

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Location:Thanon Chaweng-Choengmon,Bo Phut,Thailand

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Happy New Year Take Two (18 - 21 February 2015)

It started with huge noise in the middle of the night as volley after volley of firecrackers were let off - Chinese New Year had begun. Mae Nam, the village where I stay is traditionally Chinese with a big Chinese temple and some original wooden Chinese houses, has been "en fete" for a couple of weeks leading up to their Chinese New Year celebrations.

Hence the firecrackers. I don't think the noise let up day and night for three days as it's quite a long celebration here in Thailand, starting on the New Year's Eve, then the day and then the day after seemed to be a bit of a holiday too leading into the weekend. On the New Year's Eve as I did my morning walk people were setting up great feasts for the spirits in front of their spirit houses with tables laden with duck, rice, fruit, red fizzy pop and a half bottle of local whiskey. Smoke everywhere from the bunches of incense. Everyone in red clothes. Red lanterns hanging wherever they could. The spirits were in for quite a day. When I reached the pier, I noticed all the boats that go out on snorkel trips to the marine park were "parked" with their bows facing the beach rather than the other way round ready for their passengers to clamber in. In front of them was a huge long trestle table filled with more food and drink offerings. And leaning against this were eight red streams of firecrackers ready to be lit. Lots of incense was planted in the sand and various prayers and bows made. Pictures of the staff were taken and then the firecracker strings were lit. They really can make a noise those things especially eight at once! But I guess it would have been an extra safe day to go on the boats!

I walked back passed the temple and similar things had been happening there with a sea of red paper left where the firecrackers had been lit.

New Year's Day coincided with Mae Nam "Walking Street" which is the evening they close the small roads to any traffic and all sorts of stalls appear selling food, drink, clothes, fake bags so it's always busy but this time it was manic. Loads of people, firecrackers, acrobats.

This tower of Chinese acrobats would climb up, take a bow, collect some money and then do it all again ten metres further up the road, they must have been knackered! But the worrying thing for me was that the person on the top, 30 feet in the air, taking a bow and blowing kisses was so tiny, she was only about two. Health & Safety isn't big here... The firecrackers were let off willy nilly and the huge open pans of oil, balanced precariously on top of a burner with a short lead to the gas bottle, frying all sorts of delicacies as very young children play hide and seek amongst them is to me a huge accident waiting to happen. The Thiai's also try and get round safety issues by festooning their cars, vans and trucks for Chinese New Year with big "bouquets" of orchids and marigolds attached to the front for a safer year behind the wheel. I think better, slower, more careful, more sober driving may be more effective in the long run...

The acrobats were also joined by the lion and the long golden dragon. At each business they go in as much as they can - these are small shophouses and restaurants so the huge dragon can't really fit, and the proprietor pays them and then another stream of firecrackers is set off. I hope that they all have a prosperous year as a result. The celebrations went on late into the night with bands on the beach, a huge firework display and great searchlights in the sky. At one point a stirring National Anthem was played, don't know if it was the Thai one or the Chinese one but whichever it was everyone, tourists taking a lead from the locals, stood still very respectfully as it it played its martial tune.
The only thing that didn't go to plan on the day was the whole red packet thing. It's a tradition to give red envelopes filled with money to children and "seniors". I tried to look hopeful all day but none came my way...

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Sunday, 15 February 2015

Culture and Laws (6 - 14 February 2015)

In my meandering I happened to be at the big Mae Nam temple one morning and saw a great festival. It looked like the dedication of a new statue of a monk. When I arrived there was a raucous procession going on with a group of drummers at the front all drumming and dancing around. They were lots of young people dressed in what looked like fancy dress and sporting brightly coloured fancy dress wigs. Behind them were lots of people all joined together by a loose white cord and bringing up the rear, carried on a palanquin was what looked like a very still, old monk sitting cross legged as he was carried. It was only after I had watched for a while, marvelling at the power of meditation to keep him so still amidst the noise and chaos that I realised he was a life sized statue! He was carried clockwise around one of the temple buildings a few times and then carried over to the other hall which is where I assume he was to stay. It was a really joyful occasion with lots and lots of noise and laughter and a big audience of kids from the local schools. So different from what I would imagine the dedication of a statue in a church.

The temples here so seem so workaday compared to churches, with people wandering around at will, dogs and cats resting under the trees and people dropping by and leaving goods for the monks. They are such colourful places as are the spirit houses here at each house. I assume a spirit house design is based on a temple and some are very impressive with two buildings and, like a rich child's doll's house, stuffed with all sorts of figures - princes and kings, princesses and dancing girls, lots of glittery furniture. There's also a table at the front for the offerings of food and drink and the ladder at the front. But not all are as glitzy, this rather home made effort is one of my favourites!

The temple shops are also going through a very colourful time of year. They are always bright with the floral garland offerings and the yellow packaging of the goods buckets for the monks, all beautifully wrapped in yellow cellophane and containing monkly necessities such as soap, toothpaste, soap powder - although I did see one the other day with shampoo in it. Somewhat surplus to requirements I would have thought as they all have shaved heads.... But now these temple shops have added the bright reds and golds of the lanterns and trimmings for Chinese New Year and the other pink and red heart shaped items and huge teddies and cuddly toys for Valentine's Day. Indeed one big teddy for sale in one was a whopping £85, a huge amount here when the minimum wage per day is around £6.

The military who are still running the country are generally accepted as doing a good job. A couple of notable laws have been changed. The first has put a whole tourist sector out of business. In the past if you wanted to extend your 30 day free tourist visa you needed to do a "visa run", i.e. get out of the country, re enter it the same day if you wanted and you got a further free 30 days. Whole businesses and fleets of minibuses were on hand to ease this process for you if you didn't want to fly out. Now, all you need to do is visit the local immigration office, queue for almost a day, pay £40 and your visa is extended for the extra 30 days. Good for the government coffers and the tourist but not so good for local employment... Now is probably the time to buy if you're looking for a second hand minibus here...
Another law that has finally been brought up to date is the breathalyser, and not before time, drink driving is a huge issue here, not least amongst Western tourists who wouldn't dream of doing it at home. In the past they could try and breathalyse you but if you refused to take it, there was little they could do. Now if you refuse, they can haul you off to the police station. The first case of them trying to do this was reported in the local paper. A woman, obviously under the influence was stopped but she refused to take the test. They tried to get her to the police station but she refused to get out of her car saying she was inappropriately dressed and stayed in her car for six hours.... One wonders if the alcohol had been processed by the time she gave in.....
There was also another interesting report in the Bangkok Times this morning. Some people in Bangkok were stopped from protesting about the military rule here under the banner of the "Stolen Election" referring to the one that never took place last year. They didn't try to hide what they were doing and promoted it on Facebook. 100 troops barricaded the place where it was due so it never really got going but they did manage to hand out copies of George Orwell's 1984 which made sense when you hear that the organisers were taken in for what authorities term as "attitude adjustment".

Ps - a pic of the clever coconut monkey guarding his haul which I missed out of the last blog.

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Saturday, 7 February 2015

Creatures (2 - 6 February 2015)

I am turning into a bit of a David Attenborough here, noticing all of the local creatures that populate this area. Plenty of cats around which is a good thing - for the first time that I had ever heard of, someone spotted a rat around the hotel but the cats were literally making a meal of it..... Same same with the odd cockroach that wanders in. But I am surprised that there aren't more vermin apparent around the place, not just the hotel area but the streets in general. The drains are quite close to the surface here, running along the side of the road with concrete slabs or metal grilles over them - many are missing and walking at night needs great care if you want to avoid falling down a smelly hole in the dark!

But even when they are all present and correct the big gaps allow the not so lovely aroma of drains to waft around. As well as accessible drains, every few yards there are also little offerings on the floor and on the ubiquitous spirit houses - rice, fruit, bits of chicken and brightly coloured glasses and bottles of pop along with a straw are just left out, perfect street food for rats and dogs but oddly it doesn't seem to get eaten. There are loads of dogs here who root about amongst the rubbish for food but these offerings don't seem to attract them - they must know they are holy...
And of course the are the dogs, so many I think the place is in danger of getting overrun. A larger proportion than there used to be have collars on now so are looked after by someone, but this doesn't seem to stop them being in a bit of a state. I don't think many get neutered so the state of some of the older bitches after a lifetime of puppies is shocking. Most seem to have some sort of skin problems with clumps of missing fur, many are limping along on three legs, some with fur so long and matted (in this heat) they look like candidates for Paul O'Grady's "For The Love Of Dogs". Most look in need of a good vet check. But there are exceptions to this rule. Many pampered pooches are driven along in the front basket on the motorbike, some are so "well looked after" with food and treats that they can hardly walk. My two current favourites are the Thai equivalents of Bertie and Gracie, they live in the same place and run round, play fight, and cuddle up to each other.

I see them most days on one of my walks, they are owned by the man who makes artisan brushes. Ever since I've been here over the last years here's been in the same place, crafting exquisite floor and garden brushes which he sells for next to nothing. Whatever time of the day, morning or evening he is always there. He was always on his own but this year I think his family have moved in, along with the two dogs. His business has now expanded with the girl doing laundry and the man hiring out his car as a taxi. Some days the whole family are there sitting around and very neatly trimming and packing huge bundles of lemongrass which give out such a great smell you want to just stand there and breathe it in. But as well as these dogs with collars, there are still a large number of non owned dogs who wander about at will, bark a lot and are a bit scary. They really need some sort of dog warden system here to keep it all under control. And as you can imagine the state of some of these strays is appalling. For a Buddhist country who believe in kindness to animals their lack of care for stray dogs really lets them down. I just hope this tiny little puppy I saw at the temple has a happier future than most.

The other creature very precious to their owners are the buffalo, not bred for milk or mozzarella, but for fighting, I guess to support the Asian love of gambling. They can be worth lots of money in gambling prizes. As gambling is illegal in Thailand apparently you have to be "in the know" if you want to go to a buffalo fight. Not a problem for me then! Every morning and evening I see them being taken for a walk to a bit of nice new grass. Some of them are really huge and tethered only by a pathetic looking bit of rope through the nose. I walk by as quickly as I can and avoid wearing red...
Geckos and lizards also feature here. I know a gecko in the room is a positive thing as it eats the mozzies but frankly I prefer to use a can of Baygon. Why use nature when a chemical will do the job quicker I always say. Can someone then please tell the Thai gecko in my room that the Baygon can is always at the ready so he ain't going to find any food in my room. He isn't taking any notice of me... Lizards here are generally quite small but in Chaweng there are a couple of guys who have larger ones out in the evening for tourists to hold draped around their necks and take a picture - for a fee of course. I am continually surprised at the number of European tourists who manhandle the poor creatures for their snaps. They really should know better.
One of my favourites to see is the coconut monkey. He rides by as proudly upright as a Vietnamese girl on a bike on the back of his owners motorbike, or lounges comfortably in the metal sidecar, looking around at life. His owner has a collection of very long poles - they look especially long as they are carried on the motorbike and are at least four times as long as the bike. But when they get to their destination the monkey, attached to a very long rope scampers up the high coconut palms, picks the coconuts and throws them down to the floor. Clever!
But looking up you see some other creatures too. Squirrels run along the tangles of electricity cables like a high wire act and (David - spider alert) rather large spiders sit in the middle of their webs just above your head.

Back on terra firma when it rains the frogs come out and seem to wander everywhere, even the main road. The tree frogs also get very vociferous after rain and can be so loud even though they are such tiny creatures. Not so clever though, the roads are spattered with squashed frogs. And the roads are also spattered with the odd squashed dead snake, again even on the main road. But at least they are dead... Also a phenomenon I have not noticed here before are the chickens everywhere.

They were always wandering about on the back roads but now they're all over the place on the main road too. Can you get feral chickens..... And talking of birds, keeping songbirds in cages here is big business. Interestingly it seems a totally male pastime and you often see the men putting the birds out in the sunshine or carrying them very carefully in their covered cages on their bikes. I understand that bird singing contests are really big over here and can have really big prizes.

But I think my favourite of the unusual creatures has to be the huge elephant being transported on the back of the open truck. Not sure it was that good for the elephant though, he wasn't wearing a seat belt....

My least favourite creatures though are the (mainly) German men who feel it is ok to paw any Thai waitress as and when they feel like it. One incident a couple of days ago illustrates it. An inebriated German regular customer comes into the restaurant and decides to take one girl's flip flops off, running his hands up and down her leg, cuddles another and won't let her go and keeps pawing their arms. The girls say no as politely as they can and ask him to stop and try to wriggle away but I guess they are frightened for their jobs if they gave him a kick. What was worse was the German restaurant owner did nothing to stop it until I asked him to. Bless 'em, the girls came and thanked me for my support but it's so wrong that it even happens. They would have intervened had it been a German waitress - actually the bloke wouldn't have even behaved like that with a European. If they behaved like that back in Germany they'd get arrested. I wish people wouldn't change just because they are away from home, wherever you are is no excuse to behave badly. (End of rant!)

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Sunday, 1 February 2015

Khuan Ban Mai (ขึ้นบ้านใหม่), a Thai housewarming (1February 2015)

What an honour! Surajit, the owner of the Florist Resort here in Samui has had three new houses built, one each for his children and one for himself and his wife. The kids are so lucky, the houses are beautiful, big and each with a private pool in front. They form a mini compound on the dirt road that leads to the resort. Today they are finally completed and it was the housewarming, both a religious and social occasion here in Thailand. And they asked me to attend, I was the only non Thai face in about 80 guests and felt it was a real honour.

This is the official explanation of the ceremony:
Khuan Ban Mai (ขึ้นบ้านใหม่), the blessing of a new house, is regarded by Thai people as a very auspicious event. It celebrates the completion of a new home by bringing together friends and family and performing a Buddhist rite to encourage good fortune and prosperity for the new dwelling and its inhabitants.
Before the ceremony takes place, the host will ask for advice from monks or senior lay people to determine a suitable day for the ceremony. The auspicious day depends on the day of the week and the time of the year. For example, Saturday is considered to be an unlucky day for a blessing as Saturn is believed to be the planet of misfortune.
Monks play important role in the house warming ceremony. The host will usually invite an odd number of monks such as 5, 7 or 9 monks as odd numbers are regarded as lucky. Normally, the ceremony is held in the morning until noon and afterwards the monks gather together to bless the host and guests.
When the ceremony is finished, food will be offered to the monks by the host followed by gift offerings. The gift set usually contains a banana leaf cone holding flowers, candles, and joss sticks along with necessary everyday items (drinking water, soap, detergent, toothbrush, shampoo and comestibles such as biscuits or crackers). As well as these individual gifts for monks there is usually a sealed envelope which contains a donation to help support the temple.
As part of the ceremony, monks will sprinkle holy water on the host and guests and throughout the new house. Each member of new household will receive a string wrist-binding (white holy thread) from the monk as a blessing. The holy thread, known as Sai Seen, is also entwined around the main household Buddha image.
A wide selection of food is prepared for the event and the choice of dishes is an important consideration. Thai curries are a popular choice and are often served with Thai vermicelli. Vermicelli is a long mung bean noodle which is a traditional symbol of longevity and is served to promote the long life of the host, long like the noodle.
Dessert will also be served to everyone. Desserts with significant names and meanings are chosen such as Foi Thong (sweet golden threads), Thong Yip (sweet golden flower), Thong Yod (sweet golden dew-drop-like ball) or even Kanom Chun (layered sweet meat). In Thai, “Thong” means “golden” and desserts with this is in the name signify wealth and good life for one and all. Kanom Chun dessert implies receiving respect and promotion in your working life.
Khuan Ban Mai, the housewarming ceremony is a traditional part of Thai life that has been passed from generation to generation. It is a ceremony combining Buddhist beliefs with social values and Thai customs and is a wonderful opportunity for family members to gather and enjoy the moment together increasing warmth and closeness in the family and friends.

Surajit had the full on ceremony, a (very long) white thread wrapped around the whole compound, the full complement of nine chanting monks and a feast with so much food they must have been up all night preparing. I think it's obviously the "done thing", a bit like an afternoon tea at Button Street, to really over order on the food so people take home goodie bags.

This was certainly the case here as the older ladies came armed with huge baskets and tiffin carriers to take away mounds of surplus food. And plastic bags were distributed to all to take some of each of the curries and other dishes away. The feast had so many different dishes I couldn't count. I have never tried Thai desserts before but have discovered a taste for the banana leaf wrapped parcels of sticky rice topped with what tastes like a strip of egg custard! It was all set up under a marquee as the auspicious time was from 10 am in the morning so the sun was really hot. The chanting and prayers went on for just over half an hour and then after the monks had eaten a huge meal they made some marks in white on the entrance doors before leaving with their gifts. Not sure what that was apart from some sort of blessing.
All in all a fascinating morning and a real insight into Thai culture.
I wish them all well in their new homes.

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