Blog News

1. Comments are still disabled though I am thinking of enabling them again.

2. There are now several extra pages - Poetry Index, Travel, Education, Childish Things - accessible at the top of the page. They index entires before October 2013.

3. I will, in the next few weeks, be adding new pages with other indexes.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Thailand And Laos 1998: Day Six

I slept better than the night before – albeit in twenty minute bursts that came suddenly and painfully to an end each time I turned my head onto the side with the bandage. Nevertheless in the morning I was feeling less of a prat and more optimistic about the remainder of the trip. The only thing that I was not looking forward to was the removal of the stitches. This, I had been instructed, must be in exactly seven days. In seven days time I would be in Luang Prabang in Laos. I always find the Lonely Planet Guides to be invaluable reference works when travelling and yesterday evening while waiting for dinner I had checked out what it had to say about Laos' medical facilities.
"...the availability of decent medical services is practically nil."
"...the state run hospitals are among the worst in South East Asia in terms of hygiene, staff training, facilities and medicine"
It wasn't an experience I was looking forward to but for the moment I tried to put it out of my mind.
The clinic seemed to have made a neat job of the stitches although the wound was still oozing quite a lot of blood. My foot was considerably more painful than it had been and the bruising more extensive. It was clear that today I would need to be in the truck again.
The trucks are of an unusual design. They have no cabin and virtually no suspension although they are unbelievably robust and more like a tractor in their construction. The most unusual and unnerving feature for someone riding in the front is that part of the engine consists of a large metal flywheel which protrudes up through the floor of the foot-well and spins rapidly and dangerously mere centimetres from your leg.
We drove past the others on our way out of the village, waving to them as if we were royalty, and soon were bouncing along the dirt tracks to the next village. Yesterday I hadn't really been in a position to look about me but today was different and although the motion of the truck was too extreme to allow photography I could at least sit and appreciate the scenery. It was pretty rather than beautiful and pleasant rather than spectacular but naturally when Mr. Tah asked me what I thought of his country I was a little less reserved in my praise.
It was less than an hour's drive to the Akha village which was tonight's stop. We drove into it through a gate surmounted by a wooden cross. I wondered if perhaps the villagers were Christians. The guide book gave no indication of this and when I asked I was told that they have a predominantly animist religion. Mr. Tah couldn’t explain the cross.
I was sitting reading when everyone else arrived, saying that the walk had been hard and hot, but a late lunch and a few relatively cold drinks soon perked them up. One of the village women laid out a number of handmade items - hats, bags, purses and so on - for sale. She was clearly making them for the tourists but the designs were identical to the ones the villagers used and the materials authentic. For example the small white beads that looked for all the world like plastic were actually, investigation revealed, the dried hard seed pods of one of the local plants. She also didn't really try to sell anything, simply laying them out on the table and leaving people to express an interest. It was a strategy that worked. Soon she had sold most of her stock and was busy on custom orders for those who had missed out.
A group had decided to go down to the river and I thought that this would be as good a time as any to check out how well my foot was getting on. So with half a dozen others I started down the trail. It was quite a long way but apart from the occasional sharp pain when I stepped awkwardly I could walk reasonably well if not very quickly. By the time I arrived, Paula and James had already waded across the water and were sitting in the shade on the far side. Ian, Don and Ellen had changed into swimming costumes and moved downstream into the deeper water where a group of about half a dozen naked Thai children were watching them with curiosity. I paddled around in the shallows letting the cold water ease my foot and bring out the bruising. The whole area around my little toe was almost black but not especially painful. We stayed for about an hour before heading back. On the way down I had seen the village schoolhouse and now going back I decided to take a closer look. It was a single room building which was presently unoccupied. Inside there were all of the usual signs of infant scholastic activity. The walls were covered in drawings and paintings that could have come from any English school with matchstick Mommy and matchstick Daddy towering over tiny trees beneath improbably coloured skies. There was a blackboard and desks but not very many books. One book, which was hanging on the wall on a string I examined more closely. It was a picture book without any words and looking through I realised that it did not need any. It was a morality tale that was only appropriate to the Eastern world. The pictures showed in sequence a village man selling his daughter to a stranger in a suit and the gradual degradation of the daughter in the city until she was arrested for drug possession and prostitution. The final pictures showed her grieving parents as she died, presumably of Aids. It was a sobering thought to realise that the situation in the villages was such that this kind of cautionary tale was needed.
There was to be an 'entertainment' for us this evening. When I had heard this I had my usual churlish thoughts about cultural shows but in the event the 'entertainers' turned out to be half a dozen village girls aged about seven or eight who sang and danced some traditional Akha songs while their proud parents and teacher looked on. One parent who was not as proud of her offspring was the mother of the four year old boy who could not be kept off the 'dance floor'. He showed an amazing ability to slip from her grasp and join the dancers who became increasingly irate at being upstaged. Try as she might his mother simply could not restrain him and could only retrieve him with difficulty. Her embarrassment grew more or less in proportion to the dancers irritation until she finally took him away to put to bed.

Well that's different #11: Music Interludes

The end of lessons here is not usually indicated by a bell, as in England, but but music played over the school announcement system. Some schools play the same music at the end of each lesson; others, like mine, play different music at the end of each lesson.

Mozart is popular, as is Beethoven. Richard Clayderman is inexplicably more popular than the two of them put together. My school, in addition to the aforementioned trio, likes in the afternoon to end the three twenty  lesson with a taped lecture - in English - on the subject of "Ambition". This has replaced last year's taped lecture on the subject of "Why Books Are Your Best Friend".

The thing that's different is the piece of music that is now being played at the end of the four O'clock lesson. Quite why the school has chosen Carl Douglas 1974 disco hit is something of a mystery but it undeniably qualifies qualifies as different.

I'm hopingto persuade them to use "We don't need no education" next year.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Things I Miss About England #7: Sunday

There are precisely five foreigners resident in Baiyin and we all get together at very frequent intervals to have dinner, drink beer or sing KTV. It's all very good but, honestly, there's something about it that is just a little bit lacking. Something that's not quite right. Last night, however, was different. I called Carol but she had tonsillitis. Kelly was off  in some fantasy world killing Orcs or whatever it is that she does in her Multi-Player, Online role-playing Gaming experience. Megan's phone was turned off.
That left me and Anthony. So we went to the bar. And we stayed in the bar from 8pm till 2 am drinking the pale yellow liquid that is is labelled as beer in these parts, in spite of bearing only a passing resemblance to anything I know by that name.
Over the course of those six hours the conversation was rambling, incoherent and very wide ranging. We touched upon Margaret Thatcher, educational theory, Marvel and DC comics, Indiana  Jones, Australian vs Gaelic Football, Guinness around the world, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, Prague, the Edinburgh festival, Big Bang Theory, amusing toilet anecdotes, the very large semi nude painting over he bar, the psychotic artwork adorning the toilet, North Korea, Chinese health and safety standards and whether Prince Philip is really a giant lizard from outer space.

And it made me suddenly think of something else that I miss about England. I miss Sunday afternoons. To be more precise I miss rambling, incoherent, wide-ranging pub conversations on a Sunday afternoon. I miss wittering on in the White Rose, talking bullshit in the Black Eagle and pontificating in the Post Office Vaults.

It was so precisely like a typical Sunday afternoon pub conversation that I almost started to hallucinate that the beer tasted good - if only that were true!

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Thailand And Laos 1998: Day 5

It would be untrue to claim that I slept badly for that would be to imply that I slept. My locally hired sleeping bag was tissue paper thin and would have been inadequate to even the mildest of chills. As the night was freezing it was worse than useless. Even sleeping in my clothes failed to generate enough warmth to allow me to fall asleep. If the temperature alone were not enough to keep me awake then the constant noise of the pigs and the frequent but random crowing of a host of roosters was certainly up to the task. Occasionally I would hear others tossing and turning or grumbling and, for a while, the opaque square mosquito net in the corner which housed two of the women was lit by a torch as one of them decided to try to read. There was also a weird rustling from one of the others - wrapped in a foil 'space blanket' that made him look like a turkey ready for the oven - whenever he turned over or adjusted his position or breathed a little too heavily. It was a cold miserable and uncomfortable night and as soon as they greyish light of dawn started to penetrate the cracks in the walls I struggled from my bag, climbed over the bodies and went outside onto the balcony. I pulled on my shoes and approached the steps.

What happened next is a little vague.

I looked down at the steps and noted their position and stepped down. At the crucial moment something must have distracted me for the next thing I knew I had missed the step and was pitching forward with my arms instinctively flailing up towards my head for protection. It did no good and even as I heard myself scream I felt my head hammer solidly against one of the pillars supporting the next building. Wit came rushing out to see what calamity had caused the noise which had woken the whole village. I could feel the warm stickiness of blood as it ran down the side of my cheek which was already turning cold with shock. Others emerged to see what was happening. Someone started to organise cleaning me up and repairing me. I know the symptoms of shock but I've never felt them so clearly as then. I was cold and shaking and disoriented and distantly aware that I was babbling nonsensically as my brain tried to sort out what was happening. Gradually I started to pull myself together as I realised that my limited first aid knowledge was about the best the group had and that my first aid kit was certainly the best stocked. I sent someone for it as I sat wrapped in a blanket, shivering and sipping at a cup of hot and unbearably sweet tea that Pat hat pressed into my hands.
It soon became clear that I was going to need a trip to the hospital. There were several small shallow cuts and grazes above my left ear and on the back of my head and two rather deep gashes - one immediately behind the ear and a second on the front of it which had torn down a triangular flap of skin which was hanging loose. It was this cut that was bleeding fairly profusely. We cleaned it up and dressed it. Meanwhile I was checking myself for other injuries. My left foot, which had twisted under me as I had fallen was extremely painful and starting to bruise. The toe felt broken. I immobilised it with tape and then set about persuading Wit that while the others could walk I certainly needed at least a check up at the hospital.
It was no easy task but finally he agreed and when the truck departed I was lying in the back. Wit and our truck driver, Mr. Tah , were in the front. Every now and again one of them would ask me how I was feeling. I was feeling tired, hurt and very like a complete prat. The ride was uncomfortable and sweaty - about two hours in the morning sun over very bumpy dusty roads until finally we came to a main highway and fifteen minutes later arrived at the hospital.
I am not sure what I had been expecting but the reality was a pleasant surprise. The building was a single storey modern structure not much larger than a town clinic but it looked clean and hygienic. There were a large number of Thai patients waiting but Wit overrode my feeble protestations and marched me to the front of the queue. Five minutes later a nurse had removed the dressing on my ear and cleaned it up again. She said something in Thai. Wit translated.
"She says you need injection."
"What for ?" I asked wondering if I would need to break out the sterile needle and syringe that I was carrying.
Wit asked.
"Tetanus." he said.
I was relieved.
"I don't need it. I had a tetanus shot only about a month ago."
He translated for her. She wasn't convinced but eventually decided that if I didn't want it she couldn't force me to have it. The ear was a different matter. It was obvious even to me that it needed stitches. Ten minutes later it was done and we could take a look at the foot. I hobbled into X-ray and gasped in awe that a piece of equipment so old could still be operating. Nevertheless it was and the picture that was brought out barely five minutes later was certainly a foot although I couldn't swear that it was mine. The senior nurse examined it and explained to Wit that it was not broken, just badly bruised. She wrote out a prescription and I took it to the apothecary window. It turned out to be six prescriptions. One for sterile dressings and swabs, one for iodine solution, one for sterile saline solution and three for assorted drugs. Of these the one a day capsules were clearly antibiotics. I had no objection to taking those. The others were another matter. One packet contained aspirin sized fluorescent green square tablets and the other tiny bright orange oval pills. I asked what they were and Wit checked.
"Painkillers" was his uncertain reply.
I resolved to throw them down the nearest toilet and take paracetamol if I was in any pain and we climbed back onto the truck.
As we drove into town Mr. Tah tried to cheer me up. He rolled up his sleeve and showed me two scars on the front and back of his forearm. They were ragged six inch strips of dead white flesh with poor wide stitches criss-crossing them.
"I have done at same hospital." he said smiling as I looked in horrified fascination at the scars.
"What did you do ? " I asked.
The truck bounced over a rut in the road as he replied in mime, raising his arm and bringing it down towards the top of the piece of metal tubing that was securing his seat to the vehicle.
"Truck roll over !" he said with equal pleasure.
I groaned and closed my eyes.

 The others hadn't reached the Lahu village when I got there so I could pick my spot in tonight's bedroom. The Lahu are another hill tribe originally coming from Tibet. There are fewer of them, about 60,000 and like the Karen they are subdivided into smaller groups. A significant difference in the village was that not all of the buildings were elevated. Tonight we were to be divided between two huts, one of them on the same basic pattern as the previous night and the other built on the ground with only the sleeping platform raised and that only to a height of about two feet. I chose a corner position in the low hut. There was no sense in taking further risks. That done I limped painfully outside and took a look around the village. It was smaller than the Karen village with only about a dozen buildings that were all crowded together as if for security. The people were friendly and curious about why I was there. Several times I explained in mime to the amusement of the village children exactly what I had done. After an hour of wandering about taking pictures I sat down at the table to rest my foot. Immediately someone appeared with a large bowl of noodle soup. While I was eating it he appeared again with a metal plate piled up with chips. I ate it eagerly. My accident had had no adverse effect on my appetite. While I was finishing off the chips the others all arrived. There was some sympathy and a lot of piss-taking but a general sense of relief, that didn't even come close to matching mine, that I seemed to be all right.

Well That's Different #11: Streetside barbers

I could, should I choose to do so, go to any one of the several dozens of barbers shops that line the nearby streets. The windows are covered with posters of young men and women with very unlikely haircuts and peering through the windows reveals that the staff usually have even more unlikely haircuts. The kind of thing an extra in a post-apocalyptic Mad-Max-style movie might wear.
I choose instead to go, as I have done my whole life, to a rather more old-fashioned corner-shop establishment where I get a normal haircut and a wash and dry for the ridiculous sum of five yuan. In case you don't feel like converting it yourself that's fifty pence or about 83 cents.

While the salon places charge ten, twenty or even fifty times as much I could go even more down the barbers who don't even have premises. Along the street that runs at the back of Goldfish Park there are, on a sunny day a dozen or more people with a chair, a comb and a pair of scissors each cutting hair. I have seen the savagery with which they attack their chosen profession and I wouldn't risk it if they were paying me but they do seem to have a steady stream of Chinese customers.

This morning, returning from the supermarket, I saw one in the middle of the pavement on a nearby street who was, without any sign of hot water, giving a customer a shave while pedestrians diverted left and right around her.

I shall continue to pay a monthly visit to the little shop on the corner - inspite of those high prices.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Thailand And Laos 1998 : Day 4

Today the hiking section of the trip was to begin. Our main luggage was heading on to Chiang Rai without us and in five days time we would catch up with it. For our first day on the trail things were to be relatively easy. It started with a jolting bruising ride in the back of a vehicle that resembled the Filipino Jeepneys both in design and complete lack of comfort. We were not intending to start walking until shortly after lunch which was taken at the 'Cabbages and Condoms' restaurant.
'Cabbages and Condoms' is as peculiar a venture as its name suggests. It is a chain of restaurants where decent Thai food is served and where the associated shops sells condoms both in a usable form and made into a variety of tacky and tasteless souvenirs. The intention is to raise awareness of family planning and protection against disease in a country where overpopulation and Aids are both significant problems. The off-putting nature of the name is as nothing compared to the downright surrealness of the shop. T-shirts and ties with a variety of condom designs printed on them are the most tasteful items on sale. Others include artificial flowers made from coloured condoms, condoms wrapped up in papers and disguised as sweets and small, intricately made paper swans constructed entirely from empty condom wrappers.

We continued our drive for another half an hour after lunch and disembarked at the village where the walking would begin. Here there were vast sheds filled with root ginger waiting to be loaded onto lorries and taken to the city for export. The people of the village seemed curiously indifferent to our presence ignoring us completely apart from one or two of the children who came up asking for sweets. A woman carrying a child in a sheet wrapped around her shoulders glanced at us as she passed but there was no real curiosity there it was no more than the momentary gaze of someone whose eye has been caught by a motion or a colour but whose mind a moment later dismisses it as irrelevant.
After a few minutes of waiting around we set off along the trail. It was a clear wide and dusty track that would have been suitable for rugged vehicles. Indeed half a mile along it was a motorbike leaning against a tree with no sign of its owner or anywhere that he might have gone. We turned from the main track onto a lesser one and meandered our way across a field.
"Hardly off the beaten track." I remarked noticing that the crops were being watered by an elaborate sprinkler system worthy of the gardens of an English stately home.
After no more than an hour we came to a stream where we took off our shoes to wade across, Wit making the crossing in a more spectacular manner with a barefoot run up the bank and a prodigious leap that landed him on the opposite side just barely clear of the water. He grinned at his own success and pointed up the hill for us to proceeded. Half a mile further on we reached the Karen village that was to be our stopping place for the night.
The Karen are one of the hill tribes that populate much of Northern Thailand although national borders mean little to them and they are spread in greater or lesser degree throughout the whole region. The total population of such tribes is around half a million. The Karen people who are the largest of the hill tribes but nonetheless number in total fewer than 300,000 are subdivided into White Karen, Red Karen, Black Karen and Pwo Karen. Our village for the night was White Karen. It consisted of a group of about thirty wooden buildings, mostly raised by wooden pillars so that the floors were about four feet from the ground. Under some of the huts domesticated pigs were taking a siesta, under others there were ducks or dogs or cockerels. A group of women sat in the centre of the village weaving. Children were playing with rather incongruous plastic tricycles and trucks in the dirt. After a few brief words with one of the village men Wit showed us to our luxury accommodation. It was a single-roomed hut with a bamboo floor. Wooden steps led up to the bamboo balcony which ran along one side of it. As is the custom we left our shoes outside and went in to set out our sleeping bags and mosquito nets. With that done everyone seemed to simultaneously realise that it was still only late afternoon and we all wandered around looking at people and animals and rather obtrusively pointing cameras everywhere until I felt sure that the villagers must think we were lunatics.
"Yes I have very fine pig. Every month many English take his picture. In England they do not have such pigs."
"Ha, your pig is fine but my latrine - everyone takes picture of my latrine."
With all the pig and latrine photographs out of the way we sat around drinking beer and waiting for dinner which we ate at a table outside the hut lit only by the light of a dozen small candles. The food was excellent but when we had eaten it we realised that it was still only nine O'clock. One or two people went to bed. The rest of us stood around talking until it became obvious that our increasingly eccentric conversation started to border on the manic and we too retired.

Monday, 14 October 2013


This week's senior lesson is on the subject of ambitions and dreams and part of the lesson is to ask students about theirs.
Of course the usual crop of  "I want to be a doctor/teacher/successful businessman" crop up but I was startled when a fifteen year old girl assured me that it was both her ambition and her dream to be a famous killer. She even spelled out the word to make sure I understood.

Boys in the class beware.

Well that's different #10: The popcorn man

China is, as I have remarked before, a very loud country with fire crackers and blaring music and hideously noisy tractor like vehicles. There is, however, a noise I haven't mentioned before - the noise that woke me this morning.
As I drifted through my dreams there was a loud bang from outside my window - a bang like a gunshot.
It brought me suddenly to a startled wakefulness.

A few seconds later I was awake enough to realise what it was. The popcorn man had chosen today to set up his stall outside my window. 
The popcorn man is a singularly scruffy individual. His clothes always look dirty; he looks about two hundred years old; he wears a particularly shabby cap. He sets up in a different place in the city every day. Whether this is because he is plying his trade illegally, or simply to widen his customer base, I couldn't say.
He sits on a stool turming over a metal drum below which is a fire. A long black fabric tube is laid out on the ground beside him, attached to the drum at one end.
The drum is, as you may surmise from the title of this piece, filled with corn ready for the popping. As he turns the heat builds up inside until there comes a point where it all pops at once resulting in that gunshot effect and a sack full of popcorn that he shovels into plastic bags and sells.

Given the apparent standards of hygiene - and the undeniable fact that I don't actually like popcorn very much - I doubt that I shall ever be sampling his wares but at least it has provided me with another sight that I am never likely to see in England.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Thailand And Laos 1998: Day 3

It was a restless night. First there was the problem of the noisy drunk Germans in the opposite berth swigging whisky, making passes at the stewardesses and generally being loud and obnoxious. They settled down though and I started to doze but another problem stopped it being more than a light and frequently broken sleep. The bunk was actually pretty comfortable and I found the motion of the train soothing enough, apart from at the stations. There it was a different story. While the train in motion was fairly smooth it stopped and started with the elegance and grace of a Goony bird. Every arrival pitched me to the front of the bunk and every departure to the back. If not for the leather straps everyone would have ended up on the floor a dozen times. All the same I managed to sleep in twenty minute bursts until about four O'clock when an early riser in a nearby bunk got up and dismantled his bunk so noisily that he probably woke the whole compartment. It certainly woke me. Afterwards I found it impossible to drift off again so that by the time we arrived in Chiang Mai at six thirty I was feeling fairly wretched.

We transferred to buses which drove us to our hotel which was bright and modern with a heavy preponderance of dark wood in the lobby and a small swimming pool at the rear. The rooms were clean and comfortable if nothing out of the ordinary. After a break to freshen up we met up for a short walking tour of the town. This led us through a clean, modern and unremarkable market, round several streets of shops that apart from the language seemed identical to their western counterparts, past a couple of temples that we didn't stop to explore and finished up at the uninspired 'Three Kings Monument'. There seemed to be little of interest and by the time we boarded our bus for the ride to Wat Phra Doi Suthep we were all glad to be on our way to somewhere else.

Wat Phra is a temple built on the peak of Doi Suthep and named after a hermit who lived there before King Keu Naone ordered its construction.  According to legend the king released three elephants saying that he would build a temple where they rested. I had a mental picture of the hermit jumping up and down frantically trying to wave the elephants away from his home so that the king would build somewhere else.

After running the gauntlet of the souvenir salesmen and ascending 300 steps, the Wat itself is small but interesting and the views out over the plain are marred only by the perpetual heat and pollution haze. Several of the group had their fortunes told. In this numbered sticks are placed in a cup which you shake gently until one falls out. The fortunes are written on numbered papers and the one that matches is yours. Either the fortunes are obscure or Wit's translations were inadequate as none of them made any kind of sense at all. By now I was however already beginning to tire of temples.

We arrived back at the hotel with just enough time to eat lunch locally before the optional visit to a 'crafts factory'. I went, with Robert and Ellen, to a tiny local cafe on the opposite corner of the street to the hotel. I had been prepared to choose dishes randomly by pointing at Thai words but the menu contained English translations although no-one seemed to speak the language. I toyed with the idea of 'Spicy Frog Chilli' or 'Jungle Curry with Frog' but eventually asked for the marginally safer choice of 'Wild Boar Green Curry'. The wild boar, I was informed in mime, was off. My reckless moment had passed and I ordered one of the many chicken dishes. Ellen went for a very hot curry and Robert for the only western dish on the menu - steak. The whole thing, complete with four bottles of beer between us came to £1.50. I was already getting the idea that spending money in Thailand and Laos was likely to be difficult.

The idea of a visit to a 'Craft Factory' is only ever appealing to someone who intends, or least is willing to consider, buying the crafts on offer. I wasn't so I opted instead for an afternoon by the pool, drinking, reading and - just occasionally - swimming. It was all most relaxing and followed by a hot shower prepared me nicely to go out for our evening meal. A group of us had decided to find a restaurant called 'The Riverside'. This was highly recommended both by our various guidebooks and by Wit. We strolled down to the river and over the bridge. Initially we turned left but soon realised that we were wrong. At a restaurant called 'The Shallott' we asked directions. It was a large clean, well lit and well decorated place with a band playing anodyne versions of western pop songs. It was also completely empty. We felt so guilty at asking directions to another restaurant that we stayed and had a drink. As we drank twelve waiters hovered anxiously nearby as if the force of their will power might convince us to order a meal.

When we had drunk up and paid we went back the way we had come and continued on down the road through an area that was poorly lit and distinctly unpromising. Suddenly a large wooden building loomed up on the right and we realised that we had found 'the Riverside'. Inside it was crowded and lively. A much better band were playing note perfect copies of western rock music. As we entered they were performing an Eric Clapton song.
We sat and ordered and the food when it came, barely fifteen minutes later, was excellent. Conversation died to a minimum as we all ate appreciatively. Once again a two course meal complete with beer and wine turned out to be less than five pounds a head for one of the nicest oriental meals I have ever eaten. Taking our drinks we moved downstairs and out onto the terrace. The band had now moved onto an extended set of Pink Floyd numbers which were indistinguishable from the originals. The beautifully decorated terrace was filled with people, both western and Thai, all having a great time, the lights of the city could be seen across the river, everything was just about perfect.

Thailand and Laos 1998: Day 2

Day Two, Tuesday 3/2/1998After a filling breakfast from the Thai buffet we were ready to start our official tour of Bangkok. This began with what , by and large, a repeat of yesterday's boat trip but this time with fifteen of us on two boats. This morning the light glinting off the temple roofs made them look like gems set in the green and brown of the banks. Having taken my pictures yesterday I could relax and just take in the view. The riverside community was busy about its morning tasks. In spite of the surface scum and the floating rubbish people were bathing in the water and even washing the breakfast dishes. We came to one of the talàat náam, the floating markets. This was not Wat Sai market which is the one illustrated on all of the postcards but another less tourist oriented one where goods were being sold from a mixture of buildings built out over the water and long narrow boats moored at the edge. It was still early and not very busy although there were a few customers, also on their boats, doing their shopping.
We went on, eventually returning to the main river and docking at Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn on the western bank. This temple, which looks extremely impressive from the river even with the scaffolding being used in its renovation, is a little more drab close up. Nevertheless it is still fairly grand. Outside its grounds there is a thriving market of tacky tourist stands and photographers with snakes that, for a few baht, they will drape around your neck. If reptiles don't appeal you can pose instead with alluring Thai women wearing traditional head-dresses and costumes. Should you prefer to buy something there are plenty of cheap pieces of jewellery or masks or carvings.

I strolled along chatting pleasantly, if inconsequentially, to the guide. As we talked the others gradually gathered around us and when everyone was there we took the ferry across the river. Here we walked through a noisy, smelly food market where the stench from great wicker baskets of fish combined nauseatingly with smell of blood. When we were finally through it, it was a relief to be out into the dust and the petrol fumes of the street. Across the road from us was Wat Pho, a substantially more impressive temple than Wat Arun had been. Wit led us around the side and into the main entrance. Inside he gave us a quick run down on what we were looking at. Here, he told us, we would find the largest reclining Buddha in Thailand, the largest collection of Buddhas in any single temple and the national school for teaching Thai massage. Before we went off to explore he took us into the wihan where the reclining Buddha is housed. It is certainly impressive. Forty nine metres long and fifteen metres high - the foot is twice the height of a man - it is made from brick and plaster and covered in gold leaf and mother of pearl. It completely fills the wihan leaving just a narrow footway around it for worshippers and tourists. The rest of Wat Pho is no less impressive. There are dozens of incredibly ornate towers and what appear to be thousands of statues of the Buddha filling the galleries between them.  

In the afternoon I wanted to see the Grand Palace, a structure that I had so far glimpsed only over its tall white outer wall. The temperature had climbed another couple of notches and combined with the humidity the heat was stifling. I spent fifteen minutes trying to cross the road and then walked down to the Palace. Inside it was magnificent. I ignored the guide book and just wandered round taking pictures and looking at the architecture. This random strategy has its good points and its bad points. Chief among the bad points was that I didn't get to look at any specific attractions, in particular missing the Emerald Buddha entirely. On the plus side motion without purpose leads to the pleasure of the unexpected. On a series of galleries that most other visitors seemed to have missed there were walls filled with murals of epic mythological scenes of battles and palaces, heroes and princes, demons and animals. These depict the story of Râma rescuing his abducted wife, building his Empire, battling evil magicians, waging war on his enemies and so on. All of them were executed in a painstaking stylised form that appealed to the comic collector in me more than the art critic. As for the architecture, well all Thai temple architecture makes the most ornate of western cathedrals look drab and the Grand Palace is ornate enough to make even Thai temples dull by comparison. The predominant colours are red and gold with a substantial amount of green and white. The overlapping roofs look like the scales of some great animal and the statues and carvings are so abundant and so detailed that any individual piece becomes a work of art. With a shock I realised that it was three O'clock. I had to be back at the hotel for four to drive to the railway station where we were catching the overnight sleeper to Chiang Mai. Reluctantly, and with four fifths of the palace unseen, I hurried back.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Thailand and Laos 1998: Day 1

Day One, Monday 2/2/1998
There is a story of four blind men and an elephant. The first blind man feels the elephant's leg and declares that an elephant is very like a tree. The second man feels its trunk and says that an elephant is like a snake. The third one feels its tail and says that both of them are wrong, an elephant is like a brush with just a few bristles on the end. The last one feels the tusks and says that an elephant is like a spear. I feel the same way about Bangkok. It is an elephant of a city, it changes with every new mile and every new district. As we left the airport my first impression was that it was grey and dusty. It looked as if it had started to fall down before they had finished building it. Soon however vegetation appeared lending it an air of lushness, albeit overlaid with a greasy patina of pollution and in the distance, like Jurassic Park brontosaurs, the great towers of the city could be seen rising between the trees. It managed somehow to look simultaneously verdant and drab. But it was already changing again and becoming a proper city - a little more crowded, a little more polluted and with a lot more traffic, but like any other city nevertheless. The driving was as eccentric as I have come to expect in the Far East. The rules seem to be that people drive on the left unless it is more convenient to drive on the right, that they stop for red traffic lights unless it is more convenient to go and go on green unless they feel like stopping. Merging and overtaking are based on a simple 'chicken' principle and the general rule of the road is that the biggest vehicle has right of way. The city is filled with motor cycles and motor scooters, multi-coloured taxis and the ubiquitous tuk-tuks - noisy, dirty two-stroke vehicles consisting of a narrow bench on the back of a motor cycle. There is so much traffic that often it is faster to walk.
We swept round onto a wide thoroughfare past a series of temples whose red and gold roofs brightened the view considerably and past what looked like another elaborate temple with a sign outside saying, in English, Buddhist Protection Front. The name conjured up vague images of pacifist terrorism.

We had arrived early in the morning and reached our hotel, the Royal, before ten. The Royal is the oldest hotel in Bangkok and like an old woman in too much make up is less grand than it thinks it is and far less grand than it once was. The group of us who had arrived on the plane, Don and Jenny, Ian, Frances, Ellen and myself checked into the hotel and met up in the lobby to go exploring. Following Jenny's map we went down past the Grand Palace and to the river where we paid 200 baht each for a boat tour finishing up at Chinatown. The tour took us around the waterways where there is a comprehensive thriving waterside community. Set back from the water behind green lawns there were frequent glimpses of temples with orange-robed, shaven-headed monks going about their daily business. Nearer the waters edge the buildings were of wood, sometimes with corrugated metal roofs, and built on stilts around which washed the flotsam and detritus that filled the greasy green water.
Eventually the boat came out of one of the narrow side channels and rejoined the main river. A few hundred yards downstream it docked at a Chinatown pier. We disembarked and made our way down through a narrow crowded street lined on both sides with rows of stalls selling cooked food - strips of miscellaneous meet grilling over hot coals, baked fruit, bowls of thin vegetable soup, bread and cakes. The mixed odours were unusual but not unpleasant. I was still feeling the lack of hunger that several consecutive airline meals always cause in me so that I was untempted by either the sights or the smells. Our 'plan', such as it was, revolved around a walking tour of the area that we had found in one of the guide books but to make any use of it we first had to establish where we were.

At the corner of the road we guessed where we where and turned right. When the sought after temple failed to appear it became apparent that we had guessed wrong. On the other hand the street was lined with gold and jewellery shops which might correspond to one of the descriptions on the map. We crossed the street and turned into a narrow alley. This was a fascinating place. No more than a few feet wide, the buildings on either side loomed above us claustrophobically. Brightly coloured canopies stretched across between them filtering the light that did make its way to street level and painting the walls and pavements with pastel stripes. This was Trok Itsarranuphap, one of the many market lanes in Chinatown. The stalls were filled with an abundance of prepared foodstuffs. At one stall there were quivering masses of what looked like multicoloured jellies, at another plastic containers were filled with fried or baked strips of fish and squid. A row of greasy looking blackened chickens hung above another stall and yet another was selling plates of cooked vegetables, laid out in neat rows on a table.

We made our way through the crowd eventually emerging onto another street which we soon determined was where had originally intended to be. The alley market was part of the walking tour we were supposed to be doing albeit part that we shouldn't have done for another hour. We backtracked the description and soon found the Wat Mangkon Kamalawat, the temple that we had been seeking. This was approached through its own car park which was hung with dozens of red paper lanterns for the Chinese New Year. Inside the temple was crowded and busy and it took only a few moments for my eyes to be stinging and tears streaming down my face from the heavy scent of burning incense. A row of monks sat at tables selling joss sticks and papers on which were written prayers to be burnt inside the temple. I found that I couldn't spend more than a few minutes in the smoky atmosphere and went back outside to wait. Before very long the others had joined me and we considered our options over a brief lunch and a cold beer at one of the many hotels. Don and Jenny wanted to head back to the hotel and Frances said that she would go with them Ellen and I decided to walk down to the Golden Buddha which was about fifteen minutes away along Yaowarat Road, at Wat Traimat.

This is a five and a half tonne Solid Gold Buddha set in a small and plain Wat on the edge of Chinatown. The place was crowded with tourists but the Buddha itself was impressive. Outside a row of what looked like slot machines turned out to be an automated equivalent of the fortune telling apparatus that is found in all Buddhist temples. The fortunes, I noticed, were printed in English as well as Thai. Clearly the Golden Buddha is now considered more of a tourist attraction than a religious icon.
Back on the street we took a tuk-tuk back to the hotel, hanging on grimly at the apparently suicidal driving and after a shower I had a couple of hours sleep before the evening briefing.

At the evening briefing I had my first look at the rest of the group. There were sixteen in all and I spoke so few words to any of them that it was impossible to form any kind of opinion. By now I was starting to feel hungry and Wit, our local guide in Thailand, said that he had arranged dinner and a show at a local restaurant. In the restaurant we all sat at a long low table and ate the excellent meal. The show was one of the interminable cultural shows that are inflicted on tourists the world over. The girls were pretty enough - even if they did all look as if they had been cloned from the same cell - and the costumes were colourful and the music was innocuous and after ten minutes I stopped watching it and concentrated on eating. There was a brief section in the middle with a well choreographed routine of stick fighting in which the slightest misstep could have resulted in serious injury but otherwise it was the usual cultural fare which left me as cold as ever.
Back at the hotel I went straight to bed and in minutes had fallen into a blissful and dreamless sleep.

The Way Back

Indexing my various posts about travel made me think of my old web site where many more of my travel adventures had been documented. So I went to take a look.

It's gone. Deleted from the web, presumably by the service owner as it hasn't been accessed in so long.

I have mixed feelings about this but for you it is something of a boon. It means that I will be using Waybackmachine to retrieve some of that old travel writing and repost it here in this blog. And I will begin later today with the first part of my trip to Thailand and Laos in 1998.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Well That's Different #9: Medical Practice

While I was in Yangshuo I saw something that I don't think you are ever likely to see in England or America.
A young couple with a baby were walking along a crowded street. They had clearly come from the hospital. This was eveident because the woman was carrying the baby which had a tube taped into a vein while the man walked beside her with his arm held high in the air carrying a bag of what looked like saline drip into which the other end of the tube was fixed.

I know from personal experience that English hospitals sometimes send people home before they are fully recovered but I've never seen that before.

Things I Miss About England #6: TV quiz shows

This is going to sound bizarre.

I miss TV quiz shows. I was never the greatest fan of them when I actually lived in England but it was occasionally amusing to sit and watch Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, Eggheads or Fifteen to One and the more highbrow fare like Mastermind or University Challenge could be rather compelling.

In the hiatus between finishing work in England and leaving for China I even became quite partial to the gloriously silly Pointless.

Now, the more astute among you will notice that all of these shows have a genuine "quiz" element to them in that questions are asked and must be answered. Not for me the inanities of Deal or No Deal with its thirty minutes of choosing random numbers or Golden Balls which at best can be said to be accurately named. Only Pointless even descends as low as the old "we asked one hundred people" cliche but Pointless has a pop-culture element with questions about characters in Star Wars who alter-egos of superheroes that match my knowledge base well enough to make it entertaining. 

And I do miss them. There are probably Chinese quiz shows on TV here but I don't watch them because I don't speak the language. Watching a quiz show where you can understand neither the questions nor the answers. Now that would be pointless.

Things I miss about England #5: Spice racks

There are several perfectly good supermarkets here in Baiyin. They stock a wide range of products and produce and mostly I can buy what I want.
But they never seem to have that section we see in British supermarkets where there are rows of herbs and spices in jars (and refills in packets) in a bewildering array of varieties.

It's possible to buy curry powder, garlic and ginger but it's a very rare supermarket indeed that goes much beyond that in spices - and the herb section doesn't exist at all.

So, when I say that I miss spice racks, I'm not refering to the kitchen variety wooden things where you keep your purchase - I'm talking about the place where you make those purchases in the first place.

Bit of rosemary or mint for your lamb? You won't find it!
Touch of basil in the tomato soup? Best of luck!
Fennel? Forget it!
Thyme? Think again!
Parsley? Pretty unlikely!

Now, I daresay there are markets where some of these things - more likely the spices than the herbs - are available but they will be available loose from sacks behind the counter and when you don't speak the language that makes things difficult. I did try using my dictionary once to buy coriander. I was in a market and I could smell it so I knew there was some somewhere but the translation on my phone must have been faulty as it met only head-shakes and lack of comprehension when I showed it to trader after trader.

I could probably have tracked it down if  I'd had a bloodhound with me but short of that I couldn't manage the trick.

How much simpler it is in England to just look in the cupboard, see what I'm short of and grab it from a supermarket shelf. I do miss spice racks.


To Put Away Childish Things: Fish Ponds

My dad liked fish.
Rather more specifically he liked building fishponds: usually - though not exclusively - behind the outhouse.
He would build one, add a pump, fill it with fish and when, inevitably the fish died, he would get rid of the pond and build another a year or so later.

He had two different construction techniques which - like belly-buttons - could be described as the "inny" and the "outy".

The inny techniques was used on several of the ponds he built. In this variation he would dig a whole approximately six feet by four feet and either line it with a pre-moulded polystyrene fish pond or with heavy duty polystyrene sheeting. Then he would add some decorative rocks and fill it with water. A few fish from a local pet store, a pump to keep the water circulating and bingo! we had another fish pond.

The outy required more work and requires a brief digression.
My father also like making bricks.
No this makes him sound mad but it wasn't that at all. He always preferred making things to buying them and would when it was possible do so. So my father made bricks. He made wooden moulds for them - either plain or decorative, mixed up his sand and cement and made bricks.
One of the uses for these breaks was the outy fish pond. In this variation he would use his home made decorative bricks to build a square enclosure about two feet high in the same position that last year's inny pond had been. Then he would line this with polystyrene sheet, add the old pump and some new water and fish and away we went again with this year's model.

One year he changed the location, put it outside the window of the house rather than behind the outhouse. This was an outy year. He built the pond in the summer and stocked it with quite a lot of fish. Over the next few months they grew and it was really rather pleasant to sit outside on the patio and enviously watch the fish swimming about without a care in the world.

Then came winter. And it was as savage a winter as I had seen up till then (I was about thirteen, I think).
My father put several plastic balls in the pond so that the surface wouldn't freeze completely. One morning we came down to find that the whole pond had frozen solid. All the fish were dead, trapped in the water as it froze around them. All the fish but one.
There was a tiny pocket of unfrozen water in one of the corners of the pond. It was at the bottom and obove it was about six inches of ice but it was there and the last surviving goldfish was forlornly swimming around in the icy water waiting for whatever fishy grim reaper would come for him. My father wanted to free him. Afraid to pour hot water on in case the shock of the temperature change should kill him, he decided to break the ice. Looking around the garden his gaze lighted on a shovel, half covered by snow and ice but clearly the tool he wanted.
He picked it up and tapped cautiously at the ice on the pond but to no effect.

Then he raised it and brought it down hard. The ice shattered. The water beneath it was free to flow and the goldfish... and the goldfish, the last remaining goldfish, the game survivalist goldfish who had beaten the winter ice... and the gold fish floated on it's surface neatly chopped in half by the blade of the shovel.

The man who (as a child) had once had a pet rabbit commit suicide* had now killed our last remaining goldfish. When winter had finished the pond was dismantled and it was, I believe the last time we ever had a fish pond.

And people wonder about my traumatised childhood.

(*That is, I feel, a tale for another time.)