Sunday, 14 January 2018

A DAY OUT - CHIANG MAI

3rd - 9th Jan 2018


Elephant crossing.

Off today on a day tour in the foothills north of the city. I joined a minibus containing a guide, a jolly driver and nine Chinese girls, student types from Shanghai.

Our first stop was at the charmingly named attraction 'Elephant Poopoopaper Park'. A place where they demonstrate making paper from elephant shit. I've seen it before in Sri Lanka, but any elephant country nowadays likes to show off their eco-friendly use of elephants doings.



There are no elephants here but the pathways were elegantly decorated with piles of raw material.
There was even horse and cow shit on offer for manufacture of, perhaps, 'higher' quality paper.
They offered a 'do it yourself' service in the 'Poo Fibre Shed' where you could mash up your own bleached lump, colour it and spread it on a rack. There were, surprisingly, a few takers.





.......and leave it to dry in the sun (left). The trouble with this sort of paper is that it is crap (if you'll forgive the pun). The finished product is like thin  hairy cardboard and pretty useless to write on. 
A stall stocked lots of (not cheap) notebooks and other tat made from it which, again surprisingly, seemed to attract qute a few customers.





After that excitement we moved on to an orchid garden with, unsurprisingly, many colourful orchids on display.











Then on to a butterfly farm where, inside a netted aviary, there were lots of gaily coloured butterflies flitting about. There was a chart stuck on the entrance itemising different types but, not being a lepidopterist, I found it impossible to identify any because they had an irritating habit of flying away when you went to consult the chart.






Next up was Maetaeng Elephant Park. Our visit here started with an elephant show. All very touristy but quite amusing nevertheless. Before the show several volunteers were hoisted up by a couple of elephants. My new Chinese friends liked this as it was good for photo opportunities. 








Left: The handlers/mahouts demonstrated being given a leg-up, either front or back, by the elephants.











Elephants kicked footballs into a goal with surprising force and accuracy.









A mahout lay on the ground pretending to be asleep, a few times actually, and an elephant gently stood on his stomach to wake him up. I wondered how many fatally squashed mahouts there had been before this act was perfected.

Amongst many other tricks they built walls with heavy logs and even had four elephants advancing in line playing mouth organs (trunk organs perhaps).




Probably the most impressive act was this elephant (right) painting a picture. It was handed a brush for each colour, but apart from that did the whole thing unaided. Fierce concentration  showed in its eyes. Extraordinary. After drawing an outline it very accurately coloured it in.









Left: The finished article was impressive. I have seen many less skilfully produced works done by humans displayed in galleries and worth mega-bucks. (see Guggenheim Collection, Venice. Blog Sept 2015).

I don't know how they train elephants to do these tricks; probably with violent electric shocks and beating them half to death with clubs for all I know. But it must be preferable to pulling logs around the jungle all day which is what their existance consisted of in the old days (before tourists). At least they get well fed and are topped up by numerous bananas and sugar cane fed to them by us tourists (30 Baht a bunch)....and the occasional camera.
We then were taken for a ride. Not too uncomfortable and resulted in lots of happy screams from the Chinese girls especially when going up or down steep slopes or steps. You had to hang on quite tight. There were a couple of pit-stops along the route at which we were strongly encouraged (ie cruel to refuse) to buy bunches of bananas and sugar cane (30 Baht) to refuel our elephant on the move. Their trunks were constantly reaching behind their heads for another banana, or whatever.




The selfie-stick with smart-phone on the end is essential equipment for the Chinese tourists (and others I expect). It is almost a natural extention of their arm. They photo themselves non-stop. This led to a 'nearly' hilarious occurrence when one of the girls was selfie-photoing herself feeding an elephant a banana. The elephant grabbed the smart-phone and she was left holding the banana. How she screamed...it was like having her arm amputated. I suppose the elephant thought it was a lollipop. Anyway, the alert handler managed to rescue the phone just in time. What a pity! Which reminds me of a video clip where this actually happened to a Japanese girl tourist. The elephant did  swallow her phone. There was much screaming and jumping up and down. She was told to wait a few hours. The elephant duly discharged a large shit and the handler rang the girl's phone number. The ring tone sounded from the pile of dung, the phone was pulled out, wiped down and was in perfect working order. A happy Jap!

The next entertainment was an ox-cart ride down some dusty lanes (right) with one of my new Chinese friends. Selfie-stick at the ready. We even had to stop half-way to buy more bananas to feed the oxen. I didn't know they liked bananas, until now.









This led us back to the river on the bank of which was a restaurant where we were treated to a very decent lunch.

Then paddled on by raft down the river (River Taing) for a sedate and seemingly endless trip to be met by our mini-bus. 

Next stop was a village populated (I suspect for the day only) by those Muong tribe 'long-necked' women. They were busy trying to sell us colourful fabrics. I had previously seen similar near Inle Lake, Burma where I was concerned about what would happen if they fell into the lake. Would the metal rings take them straight to the bottom? No water danger here but I was given some of the rings to handle. They are solid brass and very heavy! One of the ladies was wearing 25 of them which, I was told and believe, weighed about 10kg (22lbs?). You would not want to go swimming in those. Free-style deep-diving perhaps, but not swimming!

Encouraged by our lady guide I had my face painted here in Muong traditional style. Good for the complexion I was told, but thankfully I don't have a photo of that. It amused the Chinese girls.




Left: Our guide having her face painted.













The next, and final, port of call was another Wat or, to be more exact, seven separate Wats and I've forgotten what the place is called; somewhere north of the city. Each of these opulently decorated Wats is dedicated to a different Buddhist country, ie Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Wales etc. I'm afraid I've rather lost interest in Wats.






Back on the bus with the selfie-stick wielding Chinese and return to the city. I was thinking that as they have 'stick drill' in the British army we could instigate 'selfie-stick drill' for the Chinese. Maybe they already do it.

More to come from Chiang Mai. I'm off with some friends to a Thai Boxing evening tomorrow which features a friend of theirs, a Scottish lady boxer from Wick. Should be interesting!




Sunday, 7 January 2018

WATS IN CHIANG MAI

27th Dec 2017 - 2nd Jan 2018


Wat Phra Singh. Chiang Mai
I had intended to go to Chiang Mai by sleeper train, but it was fully booked, so I travelled by 'VIP' bus from Bangkok instead; an 11 hour overnight journey. Not very VIP, but reasonably comfortable with air-con, 'entertainment screens' for which you had to provide your own headset and which I did not have, plus a supply of water, cup of tea and a bun filled with custard given to us by a rather hatchet-faced 'stewardess' at the start. The seats semi-reclined but were not very spacious. I had the misfortune to have a very well upholstered Thai bloke sitting next to me and he did rather overflow his seat somewhat. He had a headset! We stopped mid-route for a complimentary food break. It pissed with rain for the whole journey and I did not get much sleep. The road was motorway for most of the way and, being night, there was not much to see. Indeed I doubt if there would have been much to see even in daylight. Buildings and/or trees lined the road most of the way. We arrived at Chiang Mai bus station at 7.20am and it was still raining.


Tuk-tuk into town and by good fortune I found a cheap and cheerful hostel/hotel called 'Smile House 1 Guesthouse' which offered single rooms for 350 Baht per night (£9). Better than the standard 1200 Baht (£30) offered at most other 'cheapo' places. OK, the decor was fairly rough and ready but my room has a comfortable bug-free bed, hot shower, decent loo, several power points, a good fan and resident Gecko which I have named Gordon. Also a charming staff at the desk and a very cheap and efficient laundry service; plus a pleasant sitting out area around (left) a swimming pool, until the mozzies fly in at dusk. It is also conveniently situated in the centre of the old town. What more could you want?


Whats in Chiang Mai? There are lots of Wats (Buddhist temples), thats what. Right: Wat Kainda Phoolamai. These and massage parlours, tourist information offices (for that read tour sales), tattoo parlours, bars, restaurants and many tourists, ex-pats and, what I am told are called, 'digital nomads'. For some reason there is a preponderance of Americans here, some wearing baseball caps on back to front; a greater concentration than I have seen anywhere else in this part of the world.




This is a big city, but the tourist/ex-pat area is contained mainly within the old town surrounded by a rectangular moat and to an area just east of that.
Left: Part of the moat on the eastern side. There was an engaged couple here having their romantic pre-wedding photos taken, as is compulsory in the build up to any Asian wedding.







I joined the photographer and his team. A stumble or one small push........I was quivering with anticipation of a display of pre-nuptial synchronised swimming.










Left: Part of a reconstructed section of the old city wall and eastern gate inside the moat. Not much of the original wall remains.








Right: Another Wat. Wat Skookin Gudlukin.














Left: Much praying goes on inside these elaborately decorated places despite hordes of tourists (shoes removed) taking photos from behind. 
The monks do 'chanting' sessions in the evening which, I am informed, are very hypnotic. I've yet to witness that.





....Praying not only in front of an image of Buddha, but also in front of very realistic sculptures of, I assume, deceased high ranking monks (right).












Left: These 'images' are incredibly lifelike.
















In one Wat, Wat Snieu Pusikat, on New Year's Eve, someone (in civvies, not a monk) was unwinding a white cord which he was draping over and around the large congregation so they were all symbolically joined together, I suppose. 









Left: The remains of what was an enormous stupa at Wat Chedi Luang near the old town centre.













Outside which rows of chairs were awaiting occupants for a service of some sort on New Years Eve.












Left: An example of elaborate decoration around the Buddha at Wat Thai Missit.

















Right: Wat Gosup Muscumdauwn. A less extravagant Wat with a more modest stupa somewhere in town.













Left: Monks outside Wat Dyoowan Neow, again on New Years eve, hanging bits of rolled up cloth on an extensive string matrix. I didn't find out the reason for this but I'm sure it was an important one.














Right: Wat Sitalabow Talphee. There were many many more......

...and I think that is quite enough about Wats for the time being.










Left: A curious statue outside the regional traffic cop HQ of a policeman carrying a dead body with a small naked boy grabbing his trousers. I leave you to think of a suitable interpretation.











Right: The river Ping flows through the city. There are river cruises on offer which I might take up. Hopefully, unlike the Perfume river in Hué, Vietnam, there is not a pong on the Ping.










Left: One of the many markets and bazaars around the east of town.
There is a Night Bazaar on Loi Khro St. which features two or three vast semi-covered markets and an uncountable number of bars, massage parlours, tattoo shops and 'tourist information' offices and appears to be very popular. Trouble is, most of the stalls sell much the same things; T shirts, fabrics, sunglasses, wood carvings, jewellery etc. etc. I don't understand how they all manage to make much money. 





Right: However one enterprising stall-holder obviously caters for one-legged women.

I mentioned the proliferation of bars and massage parlours. On Loi Khro, the street leading to the Night Bazaar, I counted (yes, nothing better to do!) on a 300 yd stretch no less than 49 narrow fronted bars and 21 massage parlours. There are countless others on the surrounding streets. Incredible! Perhaps I should go on a massage parlour crawl.









New Year's Eve featured lots of celebrations in Wats, fireworks and swarms of flying lanterns released non-stop all evening (left). They drifted off into the wooded hillsides beyond. I expect the Chiang Mai Regional Fire Service was kept busy putting out forest fires somewhere to the north-east.

Ending this episode on a sad note; the lovely staff of the Smile House Guesthouse own a very old dog, a cross between a labrador and Thai ridgeback. It is 19 years old and a bit blind, deaf and wobbly on it's feet (I know how it feels), but much loved. Anyway, sometime on New Year's Eve it disappeared; they suspect spooked by the fireworks. It hasn't been seen or heard of since despite lots of 'missing dog' posters displayed in the streets. I have been helping them search. Great sadness all round.

Right: A correctly dressed stall-holder preparing for the Sunday night street market on the main Ratchadamnoen Street. This proved to be so packed later on with stalls and punters it was difficult to move.

BTW, they have weird licensing laws here (not noticed anywhere else). No alcohol can be served or sold in bars or shops between 2pm and 5pm. Strange, inconvenient and rather pointless as people just stock up beforehand.

Off on a looksee around the local countryside next................

Pop can mai.





Wednesday, 27 December 2017

SAIGON AGAIN

13th - 26th Dec 2017


Ho Ho Ho! Christmas Greetings!
Back to Ho Chi Minh City. Not much of the cityscape has changed here so I will not be adding many photos as I have already covered most sights of interest in previous blogs (Mar/Apr 2012, Dec/Jan 2015, Dec 2016).

Something I forgot to mention from the Phuket notes. The 'in' T shirt logos this season out here are 'Anti Social Social Club' (popular with the Japanese) and another I particularly like is; 'Adventure before Dementia'. I tried to find one of these, but failed. This would be a much more appropriate title for my journal.
Also the obligatory greeting of "yoowontaxee" at every street corner is usually followed up by "where you go?". However well meant, this, at first, would appear to be a rather intrusive enquiry. One's  initial reaction is to say "mind your own business", but on second thoughts it is perhaps a very pertinent philosophical question. Something I often ask myself in fact. I occasionally answered at great length  much to the bemusement and irritation of an eventually thoroughly bored taxi driver. They should be careful who they ask.

Regarding Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon as it is still often called but which I take to refer to the original French city centre), there are always some ongoing changes, most noticeably the ever increasing number of cars, especially taxis, on the streets. This place is designed for scooters and bicycles, not cars, and as a result major traffic jams ensue. In conjunction with Japanese investors, a metro system is being built, east-west, across the city. This, when finished, will bring about a major improvement but in the meanwhile much of the centre is fenced off and under construction with resulting further traffic and pedestrian congestion.

They are also becoming much keener on the 'Christmas Model'. More and more polystyrene snow, Father Christmases, Christmas trees and tinsel are in evidence. 'We wiss yoo a Merrykeesmah', 'Frarsty the Snowman' amd 'Jinger Bens' are now loudly ringing out of every shop, hotel and restaurant. The staff in most hotels and restaurants all wear Santa Claus hats or reindeer antlers, even in the smartest places like the Sheraton Hotel (left). This is not 'Christmas' to them, it is one word 'merrykeesmah' which they all wish you at every opportunity, with gusto.


There is a Christian community in Vietnam, but most of the locals haven't the vaguest idea what Christmas is really all about and 99.9% have never even seen snow. A 'One Horse Open Sleigh' to them might just as well be a Mars Landing Vehicle and as for reindeer, wise men and 'decking halls with boughs of holly'; you might just as well be speaking in Martian. But who cares, it is a great excuse for a noisy party (and good business) which they so love. Trying to explain it all in a comprehensible way is like trying to explain the rules of cricket to an American. I have trouble understanding it myself sometimes! (not cricket, of course, at which we appear to be being soundly thrashed at the moment by the Aussies).






One of my favourite haunts was, and still is, the 'Saigon Saigon' rooftop bar in the Caravelle Hotel in Lam Son Square. It has always featured an excellent Cuban band with singers and dancers (six days a week; 9.00pm until 1.30am). The bands have changed over the years, but always Cuban with Salsa and Samba etc. and they manage to get lots of people up to dance. Not me, of course.
Left: This well dressed young lady Samba'd, and posed, amongst the customers with great panache.

Referring back to my Cuban blogs; I asked them how they managed to get out of Cuba. Restricted work permits, I was told...to advertise Cuba, and I think Vietnam has quite a cosy relationship with Cuba. And they do it rather well.






Right: An original design for a Christmas tree made out of peasant style Vietnamese hats.



Left: I hadn't seen this before, a large junk called The Eliza converted into a retaurant/hotel on the bank of the Saigon River.

Right: A 'Santa's Grotto' in the Caravelle. Taken late at night and Santa was off duty.

















I ate and drank merrily, if unwisely. Christmas eve was spent with friends at a top class French  restaurant in the south-eastern Tau Dien area. It is called 'Les Trois Gourmands' and is owned and run with a rod of iron by an old friend, Mme Phuong, who was married to the Frenchman, Gils Broux, a sommelier originally from Nice, who started it many years ago. Gils sadly died a couple of years ago but it has maintained his high standards of food and service. They have kept the same talented head chef, Sep, for at least 15 years They do a very comprehensive and delicious dinner menu. It is not cheap, but I mention it in case any of you happen to want a smart place to eat when visiting Saigon.
Talking of eating to excess and fitness, the Vietnamese take their exercise regime seriously. On the rare occasions I was up and about by 6.00am I saw the usual sight of parks filled with groups and individuals doing their 'exercises' before going to work. The parks are all kitted out with torturous looking exercise machinery and lots of groups doing Tai Chi and elaborate dance cum fighting drills with staves and imitation swords or, (right) fans. It is quite an impressive sight; not something that you would see in British parks!


So, having had a rather debauched time in Saigon I now go back to Thailand where I intend to head north to Chiang Mai for a more sensible period of healthy eating and a bit of exercise myself. My trousers are feeling very tight and I need to shift a few pounds. Here's hoping!