After the rain in Hua Hin, Thailand.
Day something in the great lock down and my place is tidier than a monk’s cell so while I’m thinking of what past travels to write about, I’m sorting half a lifetime’s accumulation of trivia, travel books, cards and pamphlets kept from the last great tidying session when I downsized six years ago. It’s been hard, but hey, I’ve managed to throw out two books, and at least five pamphlets I’ll never read again and I have put some of the postcards aside to send to friends! The rest will have to stay put until the next national crisis. More I cannot do!
So here are just a few pictures that remind me of happy times.
Sifting through my memory box I relive and recall trips which have slipped to the back of my mind. These in turn encourage me to look out photographs, some prints, some transparencies which I must get down to converting to digital images one of these days. Black and white prints, slides, then coloured prints and finally digital prints and computer discs. And then there are the old family photos and my husbands wartime photos in Burma to be sorted through one day.
It was the early sixties when we discovered a little village called Castel de Ferro when the son of the owner of the only hotel there jumped out in front of our car to stop us and invite us in to see the new swimming pool. Those were innocent days when we politely stopped and they actually thought it was a good way to get tourists to stay with them.
And stay we did, for two weeks or so, during which time the local boy-goatherds followed me around wherever I went. They had never seen a ‘foreigner’ before and when my husband took them all for a ride in the green Austin van we had in those days, their giddy pleasure knew no bounds. We spent many hours with them and we’d supply a picnic as they were on the mountains from dawn till dusk with only a few scraps to eat, caring for the skinny goats. On the day we left all the little boys were crying and it near broke my heart.
Spain opened to tourism sometime in the fifties, and those of us who went then were greeted with warmth and friendliness. Franco had kept Spain out of World War Two (it was a broken country after the Civil War 1936-39 anyway) but as he leaned heavily towards the Axis’ powers help was not forthcoming to re-structure the country. Until the advent of the Cold War and the West’s fear of Russia that is, when the need for strategic military basis and airports ushered in the Marshall Plan, and Spain, along with other countries in Europe received aid, mainly from the USA, which helped it get back on its feet again.
It took a long time though, for the infrastructure to get into place. For many years the roads throughout Spain bore the chalked message “Franco, Mas Arboles, Mas Agua, Mas Carreteras” (more trees, more water, more roads). Not only were the existing roads in dire states but there were few of them. The above photo of the car breakdown took place on the main road between Valencia and Granada. Our car hit a rock or stone in the middle of the road and combined with driving on many untarmacked roads throughout our trip, it brought us to a halt. Local farm-workers helped move it and we managed to limp on until we came to a repair shop/garage.
Nowadays Spain has some of the best roads in Europe.
The photo of Benidorm is of the town before it became the biggest thing in tourism and the Avenida Hotel (still there) was one of only a handful in 1959. We stayed there in a room where our balcony looked on to the open air cinema which showed mainly very old, heavily censored films, but with a cheap bottle of wine and some nibbles to enjoy, it made for a fun night. I say ‘night’ because the cinema didn’t start until midnight or later – no-one worried about the possibility of people not being able to sleep. You either slept or you went to the cinema. What? You want another option?
I think I’d better stop there as the post is getting too long. I’ve still got a bunch of photographs on the computer which I hope to downsize and caption and I’ll put a few more up after I’ve tussled with the garden where the weeds are in a defiant mood. I’ve got to get them under control before they master me.
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.
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.
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.
This photograph is about ten years old. I rediscovered it when searching for something else.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ….
Sunrise in Thailand, as it came up over the Gulf. Taken from the balcony of my favourite hotel, the Dusit Thani Hua Hin.
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.
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 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).
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.
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 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”.