Category Archives: South East Asia

Thailand, Cambodia

Thailand: Anticipation and Preparations

Our trips to Thailand were not sudden decisions but a given: we knew we would go to Thailand every year, spend time with good friends, travel in the country, venture outside it, and have new experiences, so the anticipation was tied up with warm thoughts of friendships renewed and meals shared again.

Group photograph after dedication of new spirit house at Dusit Thani Hotel, Hua Hin, includes the monk who performed the ceremony, the GM, electrician, housekeeper, gardener, various room and restaurant staff – and myself and husband.

But why Thailand in the 1970’s? Well, our travel agent had invited us to an evening of Thai culture and food earlier that year and we were bowled over by the experience of meeting Thais, their charm, their smiles and their sincerity and so our first holiday turned into one of many.

When we first started visiting Thailand, we packed essential foods as Western foods weren’t easily available outside 5* Hotels so biscuits, tea bags, and bags of toffees and other long-lasting sweets had to be purchased (my husband had a notoriously sweet tooth).  In later years the bags of sweets increased as our Thai friends became addicted to them also.  Mosquitoes were a big problem – especially in Bangkok – so lots of anti-mozzie repellent was required along with sun cream and such like.

Initially we alternated Thailand with other destinations but after our circle of friends there grew and the pull of friendship and place began, it became our regular vacation spot.

After our first few visits, preparations had to include the buying of presents. We tried to ensure the presents were as ‘local’ to our area as we could get and even though no one every made tea in a teapot, they all adored English teapots, and all things English. The exchanging of presents in Thailand is very important and the correct etiquette is not to open the gift in front of the giver. I had to get used to the fact that no one ever came back to say what a lovely present I had given them, but they showed their delight in other ways and the exchange of presents was always successful. I was invariably there for my birthday and not opening my presents was difficult, as I would be deluged with exquisitely wrapped hand-made presents, Buddha medals, unusual gifts purchased in remote villages (like a necklace made from the bone of an logging-elephant), carvings, fruits, foods and pictures.

We would always visit a Temple or two and often attend functions where monks were present so packing had to include cover-ups and easy-to-slip-out-of shoes. Apart from ceremonies where monks were present, like weddings, funerals, donating of robes, and blessing of houses etc., I occasionally lined up at dawn with my Thai hosts to offer the monks food for the day (purchased a few minutes before from the market), I made offerings to the spirits at various spirit houses – and always to those in the houses of the friends I stayed with, to ensure my good health while there and to avert disasters.

Hard hat area. The laying of foundations for a new dwelling cannot proceed until the spirits have been appeased for disturbing them – hence the feast laid out for them.

I packed a mini-library because English books – apart from a few places in Bangkok – weren’t easily available in Thailand in the seventies. As we both read voraciously we took as many as we could and swapped with other English-readers we met on our travels. In remote parts of the country we would often find books left in bars and cafes which could be exchanged for another one.

Apart from that, no preparations. Books, presents, tea-bags and biscuits, sweets and the duty-free booze from the airport, and we were prepped and ready for holiday.

After our friends had been to the spirit house at the airport and given thanks for our safe arrival, we would pile into a car/taxi/mini-bus /whatever they had arranged and head off either for Bangkok or Hua Hin, a two hour drive away. The next few days were spent relaxing, recovering from the flight and adjusting to the heat, then the discussion as to where we would go began.

Over the years we’ve covered the four corners of Thailand and seen things we’d never have seen if we’d been alone. From our base in Thailand we’ve made long trips to Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam with contacts in each country lined up for us.

Our first trip was in 1972, the year of the major coup, and in that year we saw the two faces of Thai, the angry revolutionary and the quiet, peaceful one – both smiled. Politics are once again ugly in that country and I am sad about much of what is happening there. We don’t discuss the current situation much, my Thai friends and I, it’s a sensitive subject, and that too saddens me.

Before Thailand became our major holiday destination we travelled extensively in other parts of the world. We enjoyed every country we visited, but with Thailand it was love at first sight and it remains close to my heart.

I still have hopes of visiting again, to make and receive the wai as I join my hands together, smile, and say Sawasdee, Ka.

Thailand – Before mass tourism

This photograph is about ten years old. I rediscovered it when searching for something else.

Erecting scaffolding in Thailand, many years ago. Seldom seen nowadays.

At the time as I took this photograph I remember photographing monkeys playing on the telephone wires that rang from pole to pole along the street and musing on the risks to life one encountered in that lovely country.

Things have come a long way since then, I know, but up-country the same risky scaffolding can be found. It’s to be hoped that the workers are as nimble as these ones were ten years ago.

A Short Story About a Bear

Delving into my photo box today I chanced upon these pictures and as there is a tale to tell about them, I give it to you here.

Once upon a time in Thailand, there was a baby bear who, for a short time, lived near a friend of mine with a couple who had been looking after it since it was found wandering near a village.   They were kind to the bear but as it grew older it became unmanageable and they were at a loss to know what to do with it.

In Western Europe we can approach a zoo or an animal theme park to ask for help but there was no such thing in Thailand at that time (I’m thinking it was around the 1970’s because it was about then that I first started to visit there).  So my friend adopted the bear and looked after it as well as she could on her large acreage but eventually, she had to find another home for it.

So the bear went to live in a Temple.

Monks in Thailand look after any animal that is no longer wanted (Buddhism holds all life sacred), and the bear, although probably larger than anything they had taken in before, found a home with them.  He had to be kept chained up for most of the time, but he was taken out for walks every day and didn’t want for company.  A sad life we may think, but there was no alternative at that time, and he was treated kindly.

Bear A
The Monk tells the Bear his Friend has Arrived

What the bear looked forward to were the visits of my friend once or twice a week when her work permitted.  She always arrived with his favourite food, condensed milk, which she fed to him out of the tin – he could scoff 3 tins of the stuff in one visit – and some apples.

 

I accompanied her a few times but I never had the nerve to approach too closely, she had a special bond with the animal but I felt our acquaintanceship didn’t go back far enough for him to embrace me with the gentleness he did her.  OK, I was a coward.

Bear E
Now Please may I have Some Water?

The animal lived for over 30 years and was a placid old bear right to the end.  The monks were very fond of him and he had a good rapport with some regular visitors, and he always showed affection towards her when she went to see him.

Bear C
One Last Sip Before You Go.

I suppose she was the nearest thing he had to a parent.

Animals in captivity are not something we like to think about, but I felt that this bear had a good life (just look at that glossy coat) and he was treated with dignity and respect because the monks had him in their care.  There were alternatives but you can guess how awful they were.   So, a Happy Bear Story, I hope.

The End ….

 

Weekly Photo Challenge: Rise/Set

Sunrise in Thailand, as it came up over the Gulf.  Taken from the balcony of my favourite hotel, the Dusit Thani Hua Hin.

sunset from room
Sun just above the horizon

Sunrise over Gulf of Siam
Almost fully risen illuminating the empty beach beyond the pool & lagoon.

Phuket Sunset
Sunset in Phuket near BangTao Beach

Nothing beats a shiny sunset, sea and palm trees
Sunset nearly complete: Phuket

This next one may not fit the bill exactlyl, but it’s one of my favourites, reminding me of a special trip.  I can almost feel the heat of the day as I look at this.

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Phuket: Thai friends on the lake, homeward boung at sunset.

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The Balinese Smile: How to Achieve It

You’ve seen pictures of the Balinese: slim, elegant and with perfect white teeth that dazzle in a smile of such beauty that you wonder at the brushing process that produces such perfection?  Wonder no more.

It was in the late 1960’s or early 1970’s that we made the trip to Bali, long before teeth-whitening was the commonplace procedure it is today, and long before the need for a mouthful of blindingly white teeth was considered necessary.

The Balinese are a friendly people and Hari, who early in the holiday had attached himself to us, announced one morning that we were invited to the wedding of his cousin, village chieftain and head of a very extended famil in the interior of the island.  As it turned out, the marriage ceremony wasn’t the highlight of the day.

Marie & Balinese Lady

The youthful chief who came to greet us after our four-hour drive had just such a smile.  Incredibly handsome in a gold-embroidered white tunic, gold slippers on his feet, a white and gold Nehru style hat upon his head, his smile of welcome made my fingers itch for my camera although courtesy required that I take no photographs

After our arrival, there was a general movement of the guests towards a canopy-covered dais which had been set up in the middle of the courtyard.  Room was made for us in the front row and glasses of the sticky, sweet, lurid-hued drinks the Balinese like were placed in our hands.

All eyes now turned towards the left of the stage as through the curtains emerged the bride.  It is difficult not to lapse into hyperbole when it comes to describing her, even from this distance in time.  She was just incredibly beautiful.

Spectators look towards the stage

frisson of excitement came from the crowd as from the other side of the stage emerged a very old man dressed in white and carrying what looked like a carpet-bag.  He bent over the bride and opened her mouth to examine her teeth.  He smoothed her cheeks with his hands and mumbled some words which could have been a prayer.  Then from his bag, he produced what I’m sure was an industrial file, some six to eight inches long.  This he placed against her teeth.

From my vantage point in the front row, I stared, incomprehension turning to incredulity.  A moment later the filing began.  As she gripped the sides of the divan until the knuckles showed white, the old man wielded the file along the edge of her teeth, the scratching setting my own teeth on edge.  Backwards and forwards it went, the sounds audible above the whispering of the onlookers, and backwards and forwards went the old man’s arm as he filed.

The Beautiful Bride

Once the filing was underway we, as special guests, were encouraged to mount the dais to inspect the damage being inflicted at closer quarters.

My husband was asked to record the scene on our movie camera (remember those?) as the chief wanted a permanent record of the ceremony.  The old man continued working as we filmed, only once lifting his head and smiling with his infrequent teeth into the camera.  By now the bride had a wedge of cotton between her teeth – to keep from screaming or to keep the teeth apart?  I wasn’t sure.  My smile of encouragement brought a squeeze of the hand from her and as I looked at the tears glistening in the corners of her eyes I could only marvel at the continuation of a custom that caused such obvious pain, has no relevance to religion, and which was regarded as a special treat for the bride.  For yes, this was her bridal present – to have her teeth filed.

The teeth are filed along the edges until both top and bottom rows are even.  They are then filed across until they are of a velvety smoothness, the result of practically all the enamel having been removed.  They are now of an even size and a uniform brilliant white  – like very fine porcelain – and beautiful.  But the loss of the enamel means the speedy deterioration of the teeth, the juice from the betel-nut they all chew stains them brown very quickly, and before middle-age, what teeth are left are loose and discoloured.

Enjoying the Party

I can’t remember how long the ceremony lasted, about an hour I think.  I wandered into the eating area but I had lost my appetite. The sweet sticky drinks, bright red and green, and the sweets made from coconut milk and sugar served only to remind me of the early decay that they encouraged.

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My few prints have deteriorated over the years and were printed on matt paper which serves to make them a trifle blurry.   Etiquette demanded that I did not photograph some people at all and those I did had to be photographed from a distance.   We were a long way from the tourist spots and even then, Bali was fairly undiscovered.  Few people there spoke English and I spoke no Indonesian which made it all much more difficult.

This account was printed in Dental Hygiene magazine in the UK in 1992 and reprinted in the Swedish Dental Association magazine for the 81st FDI Congress in Goteborg 1993.

Photography Challenge: Pedestrian

A misty morning on the pedestrianised bridge over the Lake of the Restored Sword in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Pedestrian Bridge over Lake of the Restored Sword, Hanoi

They assured me I could walk in safety here but I chickened out when I saw the railway line running down the middle of the street.  Unfortunately, it also started me humming The Railroad Runs Through the Middle of the House, which my grandfather used to sing, and it stayed with me for days.

Railway in Hanoi Street
Railway in Hanoi Street

Khao Lak After the 2004 Tsunami

Just over 13 years ago, on 26th December 2004, the Asian tsunami hit our television screens, brought to us by horrifying holiday videos showing the sea retreating, then towering up in a massive wave that swept up beaches, destroying hotels, houses, cars, boats and anything that stood in its way.   We saw only the video footage shot by the few holidays makers who escaped its power, but on the Thai coastline that stretched across six provinces, Phuket, Krabi, Phang-nga, Ranong, Satun and Trang, it took 5,395 lives (among them 2,000 foreign tourists).

hard-to-imagine-the-tsunami-wave-surging-across-this-placid-sea
Hard to Imagine a giant wave surging towards this placid beach.

Khao Lak, the location for the Ewan McGregor film of the tsunami, The Impossible, is the Thai resort that recorded the most deaths in the disaster; the official death count of 3,950 is considered by some to be an underestimate with estimates reaching as high as 10,000 due to the large number of undocumented Burmese migrants who disappeared.

I was in Hua Hin in Thailand when it happened, waiting to meet up with a couple of close friends who were in Khao Lak at the time.  I never saw them again: they were but two of the many foreign tourists whose bodies were never recovered.   My most harrowing memory from that time, apart from the wall to wall tragedy that was unfolding daily on the TV screens, was standing alongside hundreds of Thais in utter silence by the roadside in Hua Hin as we watched the convoy of trucks carrying rough, wooden coffins to the disaster zone further south.

the-village-that-is-renewing-itself
A Village that is Renewing Itself in Khao Lak

I made the journey back to Khao Lak a few weeks ago to see how it was faring and my heart sang as I saw how the people have managed to put this traumatic episode behind them, how the villages are renewing themselves, how the tourist trade on which so much depends has bounced back, better than it was before, and how the loveliest beaches in Thailand and Southern Thailand’s finest rainforest are once again open for business.

khao-lak-beaches-2
The magnificent beaches of Khao Lak

At the time of the tsunami it was a peaceful alternative to the brash resort of Phuket, some 55 miles to the south, and so it remains.  But whereas before it had bungalows, now there are small low-lying hotels spread among the palm trees, the hardwoods, and the trailing lianas,  that create a forest canopy that crackles with noise from the cicadas and the frogs.

Khao Lak’s inter-connected beaches extend for many miles and a small-town atmosphere still prevails.  The town, if one can call it that, is a row of shop houses selling the essentials for locals and a few bits for tourists, like hats, sunscreen, sarongs etc.  It is not a place to shop till you drop, but it is a place where you can soak up the pleasures of Thai life, the smells of durian, garlic and spices and where you can enjoy eye-wateringly hot street food as  Thai children gather around you and stare. Then there are the giggling beach masseuses who’ll pummel you in bamboo shelters for one-tenth of what you will pay elsewhere in Europe, the sound of the sea lapping the sands being the only noise.

khao-lak-beaches-1

There are tsunami-related Memorials, of course.  About a mile inland lies Motorboat 813 from the Thai Navy which had been providing protection to Princess Ubolratana Phannawadee and family when the tsunami struck.  The 25-metre heavy boat was carried 1 kilometre inland and it was decided to leave it there after the clean-up, as a permanent reminder of what happened. The princess’s son, Bhumi Jensen, who had been out on a jet ski at the time, was one of those who died in the tsunami: his body was discovered the next day. memorial-gallery-tp-tsunami

There is also a private tsunami museum whose exhibits are mainly videos on a loop, detailing the traumatic events, the grisly findings and the processing of victims’ bodies.   One cannot walk through this museum without feeling moved, if not to tears, then to reflection on the tragedy. Then there is the Baan Nam Khem tsunami Memorial Park, right by the beach, consisting of two long walls curved like a big wave.  One wall is covered in mosaic tiles, with name plaques set into the wall, some with photographs, some with fresh flowers.  Most of the photographs are of smiling children, heart-breaking in their happiness and innocence before the wave struck.

memorial-plaque-at-tsunami-centreBut as I said, Khao Lak today is recovering well and the people are welcoming visitors once again to what must surely be one of the loveliest places in Thailand.  Within easy reach are the Similan Islands for diving in pristine waters, Khao Sok National Park for a rainforest experience, hiking in green, forested hills, and a profusion of wildlife from monitor lizards to cobras to keep one interested!

khao-lak-sunset

I found the perfect hotel as well, the Manathai, set just back from the beach in a quiet area with an open-air bar perfect for taking in the dramatic sunsets that atracts everyone down to the beach for pre-dinner cocktails.  The main restaurant served a fine International menu and the beachside Thai restaurant was just perfect.  Rooms were large and exquisitely furnished, but best of all was the super-large balcony – perfect for the early morning coffee.sunset-at-hotel-manathai-khao-lak-thailand

Essential Thai – Mai Pen Rai

Foreigners (farangs) are not especially known for their linguistic  abilities in Thailand, perhaps because the Thai language is tonal which makes it more difficult to learn.   Words may be pronounced in five tones which can give five different meanings, a high, a low, a rising, a falling, and a level tone.

There is, however, one phrase that everyone soon learns even if the tone in which it is spoken is often wrong –  Mai pen rai.  You will hear this used every day in many different circumstances and will soon begin to use it yourself.  I used to have a tee-shirt emblazoned with the phrase Mai Pen Rai Means Never Mine – the misspelling of the last word in the translation being excused by the tee-shirt seller himself with the words ‘Mai pen rai’. ‘Never mind.  It doesn’t matter?’

elephant-rides

Mai pen rai cannot be literally translated: ‘not is what’ would be more or less the literal meaning but what it really means is ‘Never mind’ or ‘Don’t worry’, or ‘You’ve broken my foot but it’s OK” or one of those meaningless phrases we use in daily life to avoid embarrassment.   In Thailand, it’s always accompanied with a smile.

You tread on someone’s sandalled foot and as the damaged one limps away you will probably hear  ‘ Mai pen rai’ – it doesn’t matter.  You spill red wine on someone’s white shirt, ‘Mai pen rai’ – no problem.  The waiter spills soup down the back of your neck, ‘Mai pen rai’ – it wasn’t hot you say, as your skin starts to blister.

It can also mean ‘tomorrow’.  ‘I’m sorry I cannot meet you tonight’.  Mai pen rai (I’m in no hurry).  Your partner has left you?  Mai pen rai – plenty more fish in the sea.

big-buddha-in-pattaya

This cover-all phrase is linked to the Thai character and their belief in ‘karma’ and the inevitable consequences of a past life.  It is also linked to their dislike of confrontation and the wish to not upset anyone.  The Thais will invariably tell you what you want to hear, not what is true, as in ‘Is it far to Bangkok?’:  answer  ‘No, just a little bit further down the road’, i.e. two hours drive away.   And this isn’t far removed from embarrassment which is also tied to losing face.  You lose face if you argue, you lose face if you are confrontational, so a Mai pen rai is always better.

If, when on holiday in Thailand, the waiter gets your order wrong then merely smiles at your anger and says Mai pen rai, it’s not that he is uncaring, it’s the Thai way of turning away wrath.   If he doesn’t even come back with your order it could be that you weren’t understood and rather than embarrass you, he has ignored you.

In that case, just say Mai pen rai, and order again – with a smile.

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