What cold be more orange that these gorgeous Spanish oranges. The very sight of them makes me salivate remembering how they tasted. How come we never seem to get really juicy oranges these days?
I never did find out why these young monks were changing their robes in the street by the Grand Palace in Bangkok, but they did it discreetly and looked decidedly pleased when they had accomplished the task.
I’m a sucker for anything that looks ‘local’ even though I know I shall never use it when I get home, but in my minds eye I can see me producing succulent food smelling of rosemary and garlic, mint and oregano, the whole resting on a bed of peppery olive oil and maybe some ciabbata. Dream on. I get home, realize it’s another foolish buy and it ends up at the back of the cupboard. But I love the orange colour of these dishes and yes, I did buy some.
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 te beach, 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 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).
Khao Lak, the location for the Ewan McGregor film 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 official 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.
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.
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 the 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.
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.
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.
But 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!
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.
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?’
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.
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.
No rain promised in my area for a while so I’ve looked through my photos to see what I could come up with and here are two. Both of these were taken in Thailand, one in Koh Samui, the other in Hua Hin on the Gulf of Siam just a couple of hours drive from Bangkok.
This little boy was having the time of his life on his polystyrene box lid which served as a raft from which he was trying to catch fish. I don’t think it mattered whether he caught any or not, the fun was in trying, and in having such a marvellous float to carry him along the seashore. Don’t worry, Dad was trawling the near water keeping an eye out so that he didn’t drift off. They had little money, it was obvious. Mum was digging in the sand for tiny little sandfish and crabs for supper and his sisters were gathering leaves from the hedges around. Tech toys were unknown to him and even though I am sure he hankered after them, I confess I hoped he could continue to enjoy the childlike life he was having at the moment I took this photograph.
Oh dear, it wasn’t supposed to rain in Koh Samui, but it did, and heavily. Two days of torrential rain rendered the hotel’s umbrellas unusable, the decking awash, and the grey sea a hazard if one wanted to swim. Day and night it pounded the beach, the noise like thunder at night. Room service was needed but by the time food got to the rooms it was cold – and sometimes very wet – so everyone waded through the water to the restaurant where the staff did their best to serve us with hot food.
Two days later it was all over. We woke up to sunshine, dry decking, dry beaches and a placid blue sea. Had it really been as bad as I remember? As the locals say, “TIT” – This is Thailand”.
This is an old photograph from my collection, one I took way back in 1972 when the elephant was still known as “the tractor of Thailand”. Sadly, the lovely big animals no longer haul teak and this sort of thing is a rare occurrence now as they no longer live a happy life with their mahouts in the forests in the north of the country. Their habitat has been destroyed by logging, legal and illegal, and most of them have had to journey south with their mahouts, to the coastal areas where they are reduced to giving rides to tourists. In many cases they fall ill from diseases to which they have no resistance; the grasses along the sides of the road are sprayed with pesticides which harm them, and their young ones are often taken away from them and chained up outside a bar for the amusement of tourists.
If you see such a thing, tell the owner you don’t approve.
My favourite town in Thailand is in the news today for all the wrong reasons. A terrorist attack in this quiet, respectable, tourist town, two hours from Bangkok, has left one local street-seller dead and about ten wounded, some seriously. Of all the places I expected to be attacked in Thailand, Hua Hin is the last place I would have picked.
No one has claimed responsibility yet (12/08/2016) but it is being assumed that the terrorists are from the South of the country bordering on Malaysia where a group of insurgents has been causing problems for the past decade. Bombs and killings (usually of policemen) have almost attained normalcy there, but the terrorists had not moved further north, nor had they even ventured into the hot-spots of Phuket or Pattaya.
The latter two I fully expected to be hit after Bali. Pattaya is a town of somewhat sleazy hedonism, and it has often been thought that the more disapproving members of society might one day be tempted to release a bomb there. Likewise, Patong in Phuket, another place of girlie bars, ladyboy bars, and a place where drunkenness is tolerated, was a town that could be considered in the same way.
But Hua Hin, the favourite resort of the Thai royal family whose Palace along the seafront brings the royals to the town on many occasions, a place which is regarded as a resort for the more mature holidaymaker, and one that is home to many Europeans and Americans who have retired there to take advantage of the seven superb golf clubs in the town? Never.
The world is changing fast nowadays. Old certainties have gone and personal safety is now a worry for everyone. But I hope that I, and all the others who love Thailand and the lovely old town of Hua Hin, can continue to visit it and enjoy the friendliness, the hospitality and the very Thai way of doing things.
Terrorism will be defeated in the end. It may take time, but we must not let it alter our way of life. I, for one, certainly won’t allow it to alter mine and I hope to spend my next long-haul holiday in what is, still, the safest country to visit , bar none.
A few of my favourite images from over the years seem to fit the Morning Challenge so here they are. It’s amazing how some places never change, and how they still attract customers to these old-fashioned deck-chairs.
Mornings in Thailand
Hua Hin Beach at Dawn., Thailand – Mari Nicholson
It’s a grey morning and the catch doesnt appear too good
Making Merit at Dawn in Chiang Rai, Thailand – Mari Nicholson
Cows are permitted to access the beach before 8 a.m. in Pranburi Province, Thailand – Mari Nicholson
It’s 6.30 a.m. and the cafe owner is setting out the deck-chairs for the day ahead. An old-fashioned beach in Hua Hin. Thailand
Located on a plain beneath the outermost edge of the Himalayan range is Chiang Rai, capital of the province of the same name and until recently one of Thailand’s best kept secrets.
Without the slick presentation of big sister Chiang Mai, 180 Kl. to the south, Chiang Rai is a pleasing town with much less traffic, wide, clean streets and few skyscrapers. Here in the heart of the slow-paced province, the market-place and temple are the hub of the community, as they have been for centuries.
This is the part of Thailand that to date has attracted few long term visitors yet it is arguably Thailand’s most undervalued region. A province of mountains and rivers, you’ll find yourself everywhere either on a river or in the hills or mountains that form one continuous rippling green chain across the northern border with Laos and Myanmar, offering the most accessible base from which to venture into these countries. It is within easy reach of the Golden Triangle, that magnificent and tranquil setting where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet on the Mekong river, and where the S.E. Asian drug trade was spawned in the poppy fields.
The essence of Chiang Rai is its untouched environment and breathtaking scenery, understated and soft hued, like a Chinese brush painting. Towering mountains and craggy limestone peaks loom out of the soft, opalescent, morning mists, elephants haul teak on river banks, and families drift up and down the rivers on their bamboo rafts which are transport, house and working stations.
Most western visitors come here to visit the hill tribes, among which the Lisu, Akha, Karen and Yao who live in settlements of thatched huts in the mountains, are the best known. Home to thirteen different hill tribes who migrated from various parts of South China and North and Central Burma, there is a wealth of ethnic cultures in this small area.
It is a vexing question as to whether the visitor to the hill tribes is an agent of destruction or preservation. Exposure to outside influences has certainly altered the lives of the hill-tribes and many now expect payment for being photographed, an action that is viewed by some as a step towards the destruction of their culture. An alternative view is that the money earned gives the hill tribes an enhanced view of their culture and the interest shown in this aspect of their life helps to preserve this.
The province wants to show off its many delights and is seriously out to attract visitors. Most of its attractions are cultural and natural, so they are looking for a more ecologically aware kind of tourist, one who will appreciate the natural beauty of the area and its shy but friendly people. Indeed, the people are one of the greatest assets of the area with a gentle innocence and a uniquely northern curiosity about the visitor.
From Chiang Rai one can take a boat ride up the river to the village of Rammit, home to the Karen tribe. Because of the dense jungle that stretches for miles the elephant is the only animal capable of working here, and the Karen have become excellent elephant trainers and handlers. The journey takes about 40 minutes and a good time to arrive is midday when the elephants have finished morning work and turn the river into their playground and bathtub.In these hills also, you’ll find Doi Mae Salong, where the descendants of the soldiers of the 93rd Division of the Kuomintang now live, combatants who made the long journey from China after the civil war. It is a long winding road with wooden one-story shop houses on either side selling food, sweets (bite carefully into the most appealing looking, some are positively foul) and Chinese medicines. Snakes bottled in Brandy, spiders in oil, scorpions in wine are all popular buys with the locals but most of the Chinese descendants tend tea and coffee plantations, orchards and vegetable. gardens.
In these hills also, you’ll find Doi Mae Salong, where the descendants of the soldiers of the 93rd Division of the Kuomintang now live, combatants who made the long journey from China after the civil war. It is a long winding road with wooden one-story shop houses on either side selling food, sweets (bite carefully into the most appealing looking, some are positively foul) and Chinese medicines. Snakes bottled in Brandy, spiders in oil, and scorpions in wine are popular buys with the locals, but most of the descendants of the 93rd, tend tea and coffee plantations, orchards and vegetable. gardens.
With little effort, you can imagine you’ve wandered back into an older age. Layer upon layer of mountain ridges drift in and out among the clouds from your vantage point in the village which is set on a slight incline in the mountain side. Rich green farmland runs down into narrow valleys and mountain people with heavy loads on their backs can be seen trekking up and down the paths. There is little noise apart from the sighing of the wind in the bamboos and the soft boom from the bronze bell in the temple.
In recent memory, the opium poppy was the only cash crop grown in the high mountains at over 1000 metres where the temperature was very suitable for the its cultivationp9, but strenuous efforts by the Thai government and various NGOs have weaned the hill tribes from their reliance on this and nowadays, soya, sago and other crops have taken their place. This alteration to a way of life unchanged for centuries has placed pressures on the different cultures and this is altering them in many ways. Apart from the poppy, there are no more forests to which they can move, no more trees to chop down and burn, and no patches of plants and herbs for medicine and food.
M0st accept a settled existence and Tourism is playing an increasingly important role in ensuring this for their eventual survival. Inevitably tribes will diminish or vanish, but they have adapted before and can adapt again. Anything that can raise them from the grinding poverty of their daily lives can be construed as destructive only by the most perverse of eco-tourists.
There are many small hotels and inexpensive guesthouses in the hills, especially in the border area of Mae Sai, but don’t expect western food. Horses and mules can be rented for distant journeys and local people serve as guides. The hill tribes ignore borders, cheerfully crossing and re-crossing the border between Thailand and Myanmar and, some say, occasionally venturing back home to China.
So when thinking of the cool mountains of Thailand, think Chiang Rai rather than Chiang Mai,a town which is, in most people’s minds, merely a northern version of Bangkok.
In response to The Daily Post’s weekly photo challenge: “Serenity.”
This is a different sort of Post – it is one in which I’m responding to the weekly photo challenge set up by WordPress. This week the topic is Serenity so here are a few images that to me represent that scarce emotion in today’s world, serenity.
The first one, below, may not look like everyone’s idea of Serenity, but this Cretan man had an attitude to life that was calm and benign. He was one of the happiest people I’d ever met: even his donkey seemed happy in the heat of the midday sun. It was a harsh life up there in the mountains but Andreas told me he had everything in life he needed, his olive trees, a few animals, a family in good health and all living nearby, and most of all, he said, he lived on Crete.
What more can I say?
Next photograph is very different. I did an Art Tour once in France where we stopped at various place where some of the painters known as The Impressionists had painted: their pictures were hung in nearby galleries or galleries of some note further away. Rouen I remember very well, as it was one of the places where it rained incessantly during our visit, but luckily, Claude Monet had painted more than 30 pictures of the famous Notre Dame Cathedral (many in the rain) so we were able to see it just as the artist had seen it.
When the group of painters who came to be referred to as The Impressionists evolved their style of painting from chocolate-box interiors to naturalistic outdoor scenes, they were helped by two mid-19th century inventions. One was pre-mixed paints in tubes (akin to today’s toothpaste tubes), and the other was the new vibrant hues like chromium yellow and French ultramarine that freed them from the chore of grinding up lapus lazuli and mixing dry pigment in linseed oil to make colour.
What it also gave them was a complete change of perspective. With these inventions they could now paint “en plein air” (outdoors), capturing the momentary and transient aspects of light and the ever changing colours of the clouds and using ordinary subject matter.
Alfred Sisley (October 30, 1839 – January 29, 1899) was an English Impressionist landscape painter who was born and spent most of his life in France. A very disciplined painter, Sisley is recognized as perhaps the most consistent of the Impressionists. He never deviated into figure painting or thought of finding another form in which to express himself. The Impressionist movement fulfilled his artistic needs.
Below is a photograph I took of a scene he painted (I think his painting hangs in the Gallery at Honfleur). To me it is serenity itself. I photographed it on a day when the Normandy sun was shining, dragonflies were chasing each other over the Seine, the village of Bouille was quiet as the people rested after lunch and I captured the scene on camera as I remembered it from the painting.
Fifteen years ago only a few intrepid travellers were aware of the wonders of Thailand. Last year over twelve million visitors came to enjoy this amazing country. With people who actually do smile all the time, and mean it, beaches that are invariably powdery white, waters that range from turquoise to a limpid blue, a mean average temperature of 280 , and one of the finest cuisines in the world, it is easy to understand the attraction. Nor should the safety factor be overlooked, either. With a population that is 98% Buddhist, religious conflict is virtually nil in this country of gentle, courteous people.
Bangkok is Noisy but the Chao Phraya River is Tranquil
No one would call present day Bangkok a paradise, but this modern metropolis was once known as the Venice of the East, a city built on canals which meandered through the capital and out into the countryside. Most of these have now been filled in, but the magnificent Chao Praya River with its traffic of tugs, rice barges, and house-boats, still runs through its centre, lined by stunning hotels like the Oriental, Peninsula, and Sheraton Towers.
Hire a boat and a boatman from your hotel’s landing stage for a visit to the temples and palaces, most of which are on the river, and you need never step into Bangkok’s noisy streets. It’s a relaxing way to see the City of Angels (Bangkok’s former name): sunrise over the Temple of Dawn, viewed from the boat, is an incredible sight.
Beaches and Islands – Where to find the best
If its beaches you’re after, there’s the peace and tranquillity of the resorts on the Andaman Sea where you can cruise around the extraordinary 40-odd limestone karsts thrusting out of the sea in this totally surreal landscape (recognisable from The Man with the Golden Gun which was filmed here), picnic on a sandbank or deserted island, or head off into the Marine National Park for some of the finest diving in the world. If you choose to stay in a hotel, the most exclusive has not one, but three beaches surrounding it as well as an infinity pool.
The best known of Thailand’s islands is, of course, Phuket, whose coastline hides bays of the sort of shimmering sands lapped by turquoise seas you see in publicity pictures – Karon, Kata, Nai Harn, Pansea, Bang Tao and the National Park beach of Mai Khao. Pick any one of these and you’ll find exclusive, world class hotels to cosset and pamper you. If you want brash and noisy, then head for Patong Bay, easy to reach for an evenings entertainment.
Phuket is subject to monsoons but when it is raining there, the weather is fine in Ko Samuii (and vice versa) an island fast moving from backpackers hideaway to an upmarket resort with a laid-back atmosphere.
On the mainland, the resorts of Hua-Hin (where the Thai royal family have their summer palace) and Cha’am, attracts the more mature traveller for its great shopping and good restaurants. And don’t dismiss Pattaya, known mostly for its girlie-bars, nightclubs, and massage parlours: it has one of the world’s great hotels right on the edge of town which many people check into and leave without once setting foot outside it, their entire vacation having been spent luxuriating in one of the Royal Suites.
Go North and visit the Hill Tribes
Even great beaches can bore after days of perfect weather, and this is a good excuse to visit the hill tribes and enjoy the northern culture of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son. Home to some of the most colourful tribal people in the world, the Akha, Meo, Leo, Hmong, Karen, Lisu and the long-necked Paduang, the velvety green mountains hiding rare orchids and other flora, is a startling contrast to the south of the country. There are opportunities to join elephant rides into the jungle or to trek to remote villages to meet the hill tribe people. For a more hands-on activity you can hire a 4WD (with or without driver) so that you can navigate the steep mountain roads and tracks, drift up the Pai River from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai on a bamboo raft, visit the border town of Mai Sai and cross into Myanmar (Burma) for a few hours, then visit the strange town of Theod Thai to talk with the remnants of Chiang Kai Chek’s Nationalist Army that settled here after escaping from China.
Thailand is not just another country, it’s another way of life, guaranteed to de-stress even the most overworked executive. After all, a country that has but one word for both work and pleasure, sanuk, has to be something special.