Archive for the ‘Tourist Attractions’ Category

Phuket’s Problems Solved

The island of Phuket is one of Thailand’s most popular tourist destinations. It’s also an over-priced, mafia-run hell hole.

One of the worst problems there is with transport. To get from the airport to your hotel or guesthouse you must use one of the mafia-controlled taxis – some licensed, others not, which charge an arm and a leg for a short trip (approximately six times what you’d pay in Bangkok). Then at your destination you’ll probably need to use a tuk-tuk if you want to explore, and that’ll be extortionate too. Hotels can’t provide a shuttle service and nobody is willing to incur the mafia’s displeasure by running a public bus service to and from the airport, or minivans between the different beaches. Not so long ago drivers blockaded the port so that ship passengers couldn’t be taken on private tours and had to use the mafia taxi service. They’ve also blockaded US warships for similar reasons. Curiously enough, taxis in Phuket have a special sticker, which is believed to show that they’ve paid their under-the-table dues to the local police.

Then there are the scams, the most popular of which is the jet ski scam. A tourist hires a jet ski without noticing that it is slightly damaged. Upon return he (or she) is charged a ridiculous amount to fix the “damage” the he is alleged to have caused. Going to the police does no good – they’re in on the scam, too. They’ll just tell you to pay up. And if you don’t, physical violence will be used, or guns drawn.

Then there are the dirty beaches, degraded natural areas, ugly, uncontrolled development and building upon supposedly protected land.

Add in the handbag snatchers and all the murders and rapes as well as the rather strange propensity for foreigners to go flying from their balconies and the police always deciding it’s suicide however much evidence there may be to the contrary, well Phuket isn’t a very pleasant place.

However, the Royal Thai Police have just come up with a brilliant scheme to improve Phuket’s image: a media blackout. Because of the blackout nobody is going to hear about the young Australian woman who was attacked outside her hotel a few days ago by a taxi driver who intended to drag her into his nearby cab and rape her. Thankfully a Japanese man saw what was happening and came to her aid, but we’re not supposed to know that either. On the plus side, the police have already arrested the would be rapist and he has confessed. The woman, it appears, is OK. The Japanese hero, however, needed 15 stitches to his face.

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Sam Roi Yot

Sam Roi Yot, which translates as “Three Hundred Peaks” is a national park area about 4 hours drive south from Bangkok. It seemed like a pleasant place for a few days away from the big city – a place to breath in fresh air and relax – oh, and to eat incredibly well.

The drive down on Saturday morning was uneventful. Well, it was uneventful in the sense that I’m now so used to seeing Thai drivers taking break-taking risks with the lives of themselves and others that I’m pretty inured to the experience. Finding the hotel, however, proved a little problematical. I turned left after the statue of Jao Mae Guan Im (the Thai name for the female form of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara) as the hotel’s map indicated, but the hotel was nowhere in sight. Could there possibly be two statues of Jao Mae Guan Im on a single stretch of road? Anyway, pulling up the map on a friend’s mobile ‘phone, I was informed that the hotel was just over 11 km away, back the way I’d come. I followed the map, and when the positioning system said I was outside the hotel, there was … nothing. However, I had seen a group of beach front resorts across the bay, and headed for them.

On the hunt for the hotel, I passed a restaurant, Jim Daeng, which had been recommended for its seafood. To be honest, I might not have gone there if I’d translated the restaurant name beforehand. Daeng, I knew, means red, but Jim was unfamiliar to me. The dictionary told me it’s a slang term meaning a lady’s front bottom. Red Vagina? Not the most appetising name for a restaurant. And to be honest, I can’t think of any other restaurant named after a squish mitten – except possible Le Gavroche. I’m not sure what a Gavroche is, but it might be a lady bit. Anyway, the meal was excellent, with spicy stir fried prawns, spicier stir fried scallops, a rather herbal mixed seafood tom yam gung, and crab fried rice. And the location, just across the road from the beach, was great.

Having eventually found the hotel and settled in, we went for a walk along the beach front, which is pleasantly lined with pine trees. Such is the unpredictable nature of the weather at this time of year I really should have taken an umbrella. Such is life, it started to rain heavily as I was far away from the hotel. I tried sheltering under the awning of a beachside stall, but the rain just came through. I was fated to be soaked to the bone. When the rain stopped it left droplets of water on the pine needles which looked quite magical.

Water droplets after rain, Sam Roi Yot

A single water droplet on pine, Sam Roi Yot

Sunday was set aside to explore the national park, with the usual racist nonsense of 40 Baht admission fee for Thais, and five times that amount for foreigners. After all, everybody knows that all foreigners are incredibly wealthy and so should be fleeced, even if they live here and pay more in taxes that the typical Thai. Anyway, putting aside the unpleasant feeling such blatant discrimination produces, I drove into the park to the foot of a mountain, Khao Daeng. The uphill struggle was hard going, but the view from the top was in part glorious, and in part dispiriting because it revealed the extent of the destruction of the coastal area in the name of shrimp farming.

Shrimp farm destruction of nature in Sam Roi Yot

There wasn’t a lot of wildlife visible in the park, though I did see a large monitor lizard scurry away in the distance, and there were a few monkeys.

Monkey in tree at Khao Daeng, Sam Roi Yot

Monkeys in tree at Khao Daeng, Sam Roi Yot

Sunday lunch was at a well-known restaurant inside the park which specialises in seafood. Again, we ate very well, starting with betel leaves (I think), topped with an oyster, a little nam phrik pao (chilli jam), fried shallots and a whisper of dill. Things then got even better with steamed prawns accompanied by a rather strange, medicinal-tasting soup, and an enormous mud crab. This time I remembered to photograph the dishes.

Oyster wrapsPrawnsMud crab

The restaurant was next to a klong. The klong banks were alive with small crabs with red claws (and a few blue ones). There were also some mudskippers which hauled themselves onto the bank. If ever there were a fish so ugly that even its mother couldn’t love it…

Mudskipper, Sam Roi Yot

After lunch I wanted to see Tam Phraya Nakhon – a much-photographed cave. I parked a couple or so kilometres away and we walked over the headland to the other side. That was pretty tiring, but nothing compared with the climb up the mountain to the cave. Rather inconveniently it had been built at the top of a tall mountain. The ascent took over an hour, and I was very hot and sweaty by the time I reached the cave, which isn’t really a cave, but rather two massive sinkholes with a connecting passage.

Looking up at Tam Phraya Nakhon

Various Thai kings have liked this place and visited on more than one occasion. King Rama V liked the place so much he had a sala built here.

Sala at Tam Phraya Nakorn, Sam Roi Yot

There was also a sheet of stalactites.

Stalactites, Phraya Nakon

The descent was almost as arduous as the ascent. I must have looked in a terrible state. Several people going in the opposite direction said “su, su” meaning “fight” or “struggle” to encourage me. One couple that didn’t speak to me, commented between themselves rather in disgust that my clothing was totally soaked through. I’d liked to have told them that I was probably the only person who had climbed two mountains and over the headland that day. For most of the visitors don’t walk across the headland, but take a boat to the foot of the mountain. Still, I survived, even if the next day I was barely able to move and there wasn’t a muscle in my body which wasn’t aching.

For the final morning we’d booked a boat trip to “Monkey Island” which, as its name suggests, is an island with monkeys. However, I did rather have misgivings about getting onto the boat when I saw that the sea was teaming with thousands of jellyfish. The trip to the island didn’t take long. The pilot steered the boat onto the shore, a small, gravelly beach, and then started cutting up bananas. As if by magic a hundred or so monkeys appeared from the undergrowth.

Boat at Monkey Island, Sam Roi Yot

The young ones were particularly cute.

Monkey family

However, some of them seemed more like meercats.

Monkeys pretending to be meercats

I guess they do it for the enhanced TV ratings.

I had wondered how the monkeys (macaques, I think) survived on a small island with no source of fresh water. The pilot said that someone brought fresh water from the mainland for them.

Wide eyed monkey

However, the colony wasn’t really thriving, and the number of monkeys has gone down over the years.

Yet another monkey

Sometimes it’s a “you scratch my back” kind of world – at least for monkeys.

Monkeys grooming, Sam Roi Yot

What happened next was perhaps one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. One monkey, and it was only one, started digging where the water lapped onto the beach.

Monkey digging for cockles

He found a cockle which he then placed on a flat rock and took a smaller rock and used it to smash open the shell.

Monkey holding rock as crushing tool

That moment alone made braving the jellyfish all worth it. He then gathered more cockles and crushed them, giving me a chance to try to get a photograph of the event.

Monkey smashing cockle with rock

Monkey holding rock as tool

So, at Sam Roi Yot a good time was had by all (apart from the cockles who didn’t particularly enjoy the experience).

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Wat Som (วัดส้ม)

It’s not known by whom or when Wat Som (or, in English, the Temple of the Citrus Fruit) was established, though from the style of its prang it’s probably from the early Ayutthaya period.

Wat Som prang

It now sits desolate, unvisited by tourists, its information boards and name plate missing, presumed stolen. However, it has some of the finest remaining stucco work on its prang.

Wat Som prang close-up

Stucco detail on the prang of Wat Som

Behind the prang are the remains of a hall …

Wat Som, looking West

… with a few forlorn fragments of shattered Buddha figures.

Shattered Buddha Figures at Wat Som

There are also the stumps of a few small chedis. However, excavation in the early 90s revealed that the original floor level is about 2 metres below ground, so the chedi-bases are iceberg-like.

The sandy soil was alive with insects. Bright red beetles scurried everywhere, cicadas filled the trees, and the holes from which they had emerged were clear in the sandy soil. Here are a couple of cicadas enjoying themselves on the side of a tree.

Happy Cicadas

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Sunflowers

Sunflower field panorama between Saraburi and Lopburi

As one moves from the flat central plains towards the East the landscape changes. The road climbs and craggy limestone hills jut from the ground. This makes the area perfect, it appears, for the cultivation of sunflowers. The area between Saraburi and Lopburi has many large fields and for the few brief weeks the flowers bloom each year, attracts hordes of domestic tourists.

The first I knew I was approaching a flowering field was crazy men in the road waving red flags. My initial thought that there were roadworks ahead, or a bad accident. But no. At the side of the road there were cleared fields where one could park, and beyond vast swathes of the yellow flowers right up to the edge of the hills beyond.

Sunflower fields in the shadow of a hill near Lopburi

At the entrance to the flower fields there’s a small market selling sunflower-related knickknacks and local products such as wild honey, fruit wine, dried fruit and (of course) sunflower seeds.

Small market at the entrance to a sunflower field near Lopburi

In the fields people wander along the paths and into the blocks of sunflowers taking photos of their companions.

There are also a few elephants giving rides.

Elephant in a sunflower field near Lopburi

(The large metal sunflower on the right of the picture is to poke your head through to have your picture taken.)

Everyone seems to cheerful. It truly is a happy time and place.

A perfect sunflower in a field near Lopburi

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Flowerfest

The Nai Lert Park hotel is one of the many 5-star hotels in Bangkok. For me it’s not a favourite. It seems very cold and a little clinical, as if it’s going through the motions of being 5-star by ticking off the boxes on some list, rather than setting out ab initio to provide a luxurious experience. However, once a year, for the past 23 years, for a few days the interior of the hotel has been transformed by a flower festival.

The flower arrangements range from the traditional

Floral arch at Nai Lert Park Hotel

to the abstract

Abstract flower arrangement at Nai Lert Park Hotel

to the witty.

Bridal dress made of flowers at Nai Lert Park Hotel

There was also a display of hats decorated with flowers.

Floral hat at Nai Lert Park Hotel

I thought this one was particularly fun.

Floral hat at Nai Lert Park Hotel

The hotel has a garden full of lush greenery and orchids, though I failed to take any photographs there. I also failed to photograph probably the most attractive thing there: a stall selling thick slices of roasted belly pork.

All in all, a pleasant diversion.

Mossy elephant at Nai Lert Park Hotel

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Phra Ratchaniwet Maruekkhathaiyawan Palace

Going back a hundred years or so Hua Hin was a sleepy fishing village. Then, the then King, King Rama VI, decided to build a summer palace away from the heat of Bangkok. He chose a beautiful location overlooking the sea in spacious grounds

Sea view at Phra Ratchaniwet Maruekkhathaiyawan Palace

and named his new home Phra Ratchaniwet Maruekkhathaiyawan (พระราชนิเวศน์มฤคทายวัน).

Ground of Phra Ratchaniwet Maruekkhathaiyawan Palace

It was built in 1923 and the King first visited the following year.

The palace has three large wooden pavilions on stilts which run parallel to the sea front.

Wing of Phra Ratchaniwet Maruekkhathaiyawan Palace

Separate rooms are connected by walkway, with other walkways circuiting around the rooms to allow courtiers and others to move about without disturbing the occupants.

Red teak floors at Phra Ratchaniwet Maruekkhathaiyawan Palace

One pavilion was dedicated to the King’s consorts. It’s entrance was guarded by female guards who stood in these niches. The only man allowed to enter was the King himself.

Following the King’s death the palace was abandoned and fell into a state of ruin. It has since been lovingly restored (in the 1970s) to its former glory and is now a popular destination for domestic tourists and for school groups.

Girls being photographed at Phra Ratchaniwet Maruekkhathaiyawan Palace

Photograph of the interior wasn’t permitted, so there are no photographs from me of the King’s bathroom, with its imported Western porcelain, including a bidet, high flush toilet and enormous bath.

There’s little in the way of furniture in the palace; the King had his furniture transported from Bangkok whenever he visited.

A modest exhibition captured the costumes of the court’s women of the era – all very flapper.

Dress exhibition at Phra Ratchaniwet Maruekkhathaiyawan Palace

The King didn’t enjoy the palace for long. In fact, he only visited twice; he died in 1925.

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Plern Waan Market

Plern Waan (เพลินวาน) – the name means something like “enjoy yesterday” is – a recreation of an old-style Thai market, with stalls selling old-style goods such as traditional toys, sweets and ice lollies, postcards, nick-nacks and clothing.

Plern Waan Market, Hua Hin

There were also places serving “ancient” coffee, which is strong and sweet.

The individual stores and stalls are run independently, but the owner, Pattra Sahawat, vets them to make sure that they’re keeping to the spirt of the place; no Starbucks or McDonalds here.

Like any old-time Thai market, this place has its own radio station.

Plern Waan radio station

It’s all rather fake, with astroturf “grass”, concrete boxes fronted with pre-rusted metal panelling and strategically placed old signs.

Old signs at Plern Waan Market

It’s really the sort of place I feel I should hate. However, I enjoyed myself watching people enjoy themselves – most far too young to have remembered the old markets of this style.

And it seems that the Market is flourishing, because they’re in the process of doubling its size.

Plern Waan Market expansion

This place isn’t on the usual tourist trail. In fact, I didn’t see another pale face in there; though there were a few Japanese and Korean tourists, most of the visitors were Thai

Plern Waan Market

There’s virtually nothing on the Internet about this place in English, and it doesn’t, as far as I know, make it into any English-language guidebook. There is, however, a very modest website about the place in English:

http://www.plearnwan.com/en/home.html

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Wat Pho

Wat Phra Chetuphon Vimolmangklararm Rajwaramahaviharn or as it is (mercifully) better known, Wat Pho*, is one of Bangkok’s top tourist attractions, famous for its massive reclining Buddha figure, 46 metres long and 18 metres high. It’s also a very active temple, with a large contingent of monks. Most tourists come away with a standard picture of the face of the Buddha figure – but because the hall is so tight around the Buddha figure, it’s impossible to capture its immenseness.

Reclining Buddha figure at Wat Pho

The Lord Buddha was recognised at birth as an individual of extraordinary destiny, not just because he immediately walked and that lotus flowers sprang from each footprint, but because his feet bore 108 auspicious characteristics. These marks are captured in mother-of-pearl on the soles of the Buddha figure at Wat Pho.

Sole of foot of reclining Buddha figure at Wat Pho showing auspicious marks

This image is of the back of the Buddha figure’s head, showing the tight curls of his hair – another auspicious sign:

Back of head of reclining Buddha figure at Wat Pho

[Curiously enough, despite the iconography which has developed around the Lord Buddha (an iconography itself derived from traditional Brahman teaching), the Lord Buddha was not of extraordinary appearance. According to the Tripitaka (the most authoritative of the Buddhist scriptures in the Theravada tradition), when King Ajātasattu went to meet him the king was unable to distinguish him from the disciples around him. And in another incident, Pukkasāti sat talking to the Lord Buddha for hours before he realised to whom he was talking.]

Before Wat Pho became a temple it was a centre of learning for traditional Thai medicine. This tradition continues. There are various statues showing yoga positions:

Yoga figure at Wat Pho

Yoga figure at Wat Pho

and plaques inscribed with medical texts:

Medical figure at Wat Pho

The plaques date from the era of King Rama III when the King had the temple restored, starting in 1788 CE. Last year they were recognised by UNESCO.

It would appear that Thai medical wisdom extends to the health of demonesses, too:

Medical image of demon at Wat Pho

There were some strange trees at the temple, with the flowers growing directly out of the trunk:

Flowers at Wat Pho

I was also drawn to this stack of roof tiles:

Roof tiles at Wat Pho

One way that temples raise money for restoration is by encouraging adherents to pay for a roof tile. In return they can write the name of a loved one on the tile in dedication. Somewhere in Ayutthaya there’s a temple tile with the name of my late father on it.

*For clarification, “Pho” is pronounced with a hard “p” sound, so sounds like the informal word for a chamber pot. Though the Vietnamese dish of noodles in broth is spelled the same way, that word is pronounced more like “fur”, the name being derived from the French “pot-au-feu”.

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Wat Nakorn Luang

There’s a standard pilgrimage in Ayutthaya province of nine temples, all to be visited in a single day. I’m not sure if this is something stemming from religious authority or a gimmick by the Tourist Authority of Thailand. Anyway, eight of the temples are in the provincial capital, but the ninth is in a small village a few kilometres away called Nakorn Luang. The name itself means something like “Royal City”. In ye olden days it was used by the kings of Ayutthaya as a resting point on trips to view the Buddha footprint at Wat Phra Phuttabaht . (See here for an account of my visit to that temple.) Now the village is dominated by a cement factory and a large rice mill.

The temple itself is nothing special to look at – no magnificent edifices or stunning Buddha figures, no significant ancient ruins, just a jumble of modernish buildings. What was a little extraordinary, though, was a senior monk. When he saw me wandering around he sent one of his assistants, a young woman, to invite me in to meet him. He told me he was in his sixties and had been a monk for all his adult life. (That’s hard work, but somebody’s got to do it.) He summoned another of his assistants to fetch a treasured relic: a WBC boxing prize belt and a signed glove. I hadn’t heard of the boxer concerned (which isn’t surprising, since I can only think of the names of three boxers, and I think Cassius Clay and Muhammad Ali are the same person).

The monk ordered drinks for me – a glass of water, a cup of instant coffee (teeth-rottingly sweet in the Thai tradition) and a cup of black tea. He was very generous. Since it was after midday he took nothing himself.

He spoke no English, apart from a couple of phrases which he trotted out.

He spoke at some length, sharing the teachings of the Lord Buddha.

He talked about the turtle – an animal which can only move forward, not backwards – and then gave me a small, cast yellow metal turtle to help me remember the teaching.

He also gave me a medallion.

The exposition finished he took me on a tour of the temple, pointing out pictures of him and one of the Princesses who visited the temple a few years ago.

I know that the monk was acting from the heart but, to be honest, I found the whole experience more than a little uncomfortable. Still, I won’t forget it.

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Krabi & Railay

Krabi, a province in the south of Thailand, is on the Andaman cost, an area famed for its beautiful sandy bays and a magnet for both foreign and domestic tourists alike. One of the most stunning parts is the Railay peninsula where the beaches are backed by towering limestone cliffs. There the beaches and the resorts that line them are accessible only by boat, so, after a late afternoon flight from Suvarnabhumi I found myself on a wooden boat crossing the open sea in the dark, guided only by the lights of distant villages.

The boat grounded itself on the gently sloping sands of Railway West, some metres offshore. A tractor then hauled a trailer next to the boat onto which my luggage was loaded and I leapt. The tractor then mounted the beach and a stepped ashore, feet still dry.

The resort I stayed in was nothing to write home about – not that that will stop me here. The bungalows were fairly basic, little more than an aircon’d box with bed and TV with an attached wetroom. The shower was feeble and everything a little chipped and faded. Still, it was clean and perfectly adequate.

Daylight unveiled the cliffs in their full awesomeness

Railay Cliffs

and in their fantastical detail.

Craggy Limestone at Railay, Krabi

It also revealed the tiny islands that dot the bays.

Railay panorama - thumbnail
Click for larger view

There’s not a lot to do here – just a handful of minor attractions. One is Phra Nang’s cave, named after a legendary princess whose spirit inhabits this place. She has an interest in curiously-shaped wooden offerings.

Phra Nang Cave, Railay

Local fishermen, both Moslem and Buddhist come here to leave their carved oblations. Similarly shaped rocks attract similar attentions.

Stone lingam, Railay

Another attraction is a pool on top of one of the cliffs. To get here one climbs almost vertically up a craggy slope, making toeholds of exposed roots and hauling oneself up on strategically-placed knotted ropes. (Yes, that improbable scrabble is the foot of the path on the left.)

Foot of climb to Princess Lagoon, Railay

300 metres or so later – vertically – one reaches the top where a path to the right leads towards the pool. A similar vertical descent becomes increasingly treacherously slippery with mud. Eventually one gets a view of the pool through a cleft in the rock. (Really not worth the effort – hence no photo.) The pool itself, so it seems, would only be accessible with mountaineering equipment.

I hauled myself back up to the top and followed a path which led to a viewpoint from which one could see the Railay peninsula and the bays on both sides.

Railay peninsular from viewpoint

The climb down was almost as arduous as the ascent. However, I made it with all limbs and skull intact. Frankly, this was one of the more foolhardy things I’ve done in my life.

***

A morning walk on the beach showed the place to be alive with thousands of tiny crabs – no lager than a fingernail. As one approached they scuttled for the nearest hole in the sand. The occasional crab, unable to find a vacant hole, would hare off at great speed, sideways, of course, ultimately to take refuge in the sea.

A less vibrant creature on the foreshore was this dead puffer fish.

Dead puffer fish, Railay

Crab, along with other seafood – features prominently in the menus of the local restaurants, all of which seem to offer the same range of central Thai dishes and farang favourites (burger & chips, pizza or English fish & chips, anyone?) – all of which are prepared to the same miserably low standard. Doubtless the backpacker crowd and package tourists think they are eating authentic Thai food, and no less doubtless consider it both exotic and delicious. I found it simply incompetent and showing utter contempt for the clientèle.

One day I took a trip back to the “mainland”. Here there are distinct areas for farangs, with their bars, pizzerias, Indian restaurants and places all claiming (fraudulently, I’m sure) to serve the best, authentic Thai food. The Thai areas have large, swanky resorts and simple restaurants. I had lunch at one such place that had been recommended. From the outside it looks like a tiny shop, but beyond is a massive restaurant with trays of various sea foods on ice. This being lunchtime there was only a handful of customers, and service was prompt. I greatly enjoyed clams stir-fried with green peppercorns, garlic and soy sauce, small conchs steamed with lemon grass, and a very spicy sour orange curry (more like a soup, really) with slices of coconut shoots and slabs of fish. It’s in a totally different league from the food available in the areas catering for foreigners.

It was in the restaurant that I saw one of only two signs that this whole area had been devastated by the Asian tsunami on Boxing Day, 2004; here were photos on the wall showing the wreckage of the restaurant’s former incarnation.

The other sign was a memorial, with a small, touching sculpture by Louise Bourgeois of a pair of praying hands in the embrace of a similar pair of hands, arising out of a turbulent sea.

Louise Bourgeois Krabi Tsunami Memorial

It’s entitled “Hold Me Close”.

Requiescant in Pace.

***

Sunset at Railay West beach

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