Tag Archives: Travel

Mingalaba (or a warm Burmese Hello) Sankhlaburi!

15 Jan

Sangkhlaburi is the last stop before Burma. My brother had told me it was a bit of a weird place with very few tourists except some NGO folks he met..this was 5 years ago….welcome to 2012. The NGOs have arrived with a vengeance and Sangkhla seems to me to bear no resemblance to the place my brother described.

I checked into the P Guest House which is both the cheapest hotel and the flashest place in town. I think they work on the basis that it’s better to be full and cheap rather than empty and dear. I had an amazing view of the Khao Laem Reservoir.

This was created in 1983 when the Thai government built the Khao Laem Dam flooding a dozen villages. Most of the villagers were Burmese refugees who came over to escape the regime in Burma. The abbot of the local monastery helped them create a new village and they built themselves a very nice wooden bridge to connect the 2 sides of the village. There is also a temple which was partially submerged which I saw during a boat trip around the reservoir.

Lots of young, rich Americans had come to Sangkhlaburi, I think, to see how the “poor refugees” live. Seemingly they pay 500 euros a week to “volunteer”. I wondered if the money might be better spent on food or medical care for the refugees?

They were quite annoying as they spoke in very loud voices and complained all the time about being tired and stuff. So on the first night there I headed out to the local market to source some local food not fancying the “banana pancake inspired pad thai” at the hotel. I met a nice family on the way to the market. The parents are teachers at the local school and the son is a student in Bangkok. We had dinner together. Fish “pet pet” spicy and rice and water. It was very nice. They were a nice family but I couldn’t speak too much to them since my thai is very basic. I did manage to say the food was delicious though!

There was a fete on in the town to raise money to restore the temple. This involved lots of stalls selling food and clothes, a bouncy castle and a screening of a horror movie and some local dancing.

It’s funny but the town seems to have two sides. The refugees who live in bamboo houses, wash their clothes in the rivers, wear thanaka (tree bark powder which gives a yellow tinge to the skin), chew betel nut which rots and reddens their teeth….and the local NGO workers who are beautiful of course, wear trendy clothes. carry apple mac computers to the posh cafes which have sprung up around town and talk in “ngo” speak about “projects, issues and management”.

I found a nice local restaurant run by a Burmese lady who was happy when I spoke to her in Burmese “Mingalaba” I said for “hello” and “chezutaymalay” for “thank you”. She made delicious cheap food…fried bean sprout cakes served with chilli sauce (3 for 20 pence) and potato and egg curry (60 pence). She had very many children…at least 10 and too many cats which fought with her too many dogs!

I watched a French movie with some French folks. This was in one of the NGO hangouts. I was, of course, ignored by the NGO workers. Walking home was an adventure as it was Thai dogs time to annoy falangs (tourists). I’ve still not mastered how best to deal with the crazy Thai dogs at night. My brother suggested talking to them but this didn’t seem to work with these ones. I just tried to act brave instead and made it back to my homestay (P Guesthouse being fully booked after my initial night of luxury!).

I also went to the Three Pagodas Pass where the Burmese Border is but there was not much to see except shopping. There were some clothing factories where they made Ralph Lauren shirts!!!! They had following the well known practice of making extras and tried to sell me one for 4 quid but it was too small.

On the way back to Sangkhla I stopped at a spot by the river where I had lunch on a bamboo float overlooking the local teenagers “in the tubing”. It was nice to see teenagers having fun as too often in Asia I only see them working.

On the way back to Bangkok I decided to stop by Thong Pha Phung. Not knowing it was the annual cycle event in the town I checked out every hotel. Full, full, full. Eventually I found a room in a homestay with a Thai man and women. He had shaved his hair and then died it yellow. It looked strange.

Next day I headed out by songthaew (local bus) to see the dam. When I got there the Thai women (in beautiful uniforms complete with green kind of 1950s style hats) said there was no way I could walk to the dam as it was 3km. I said that wouldn’t be a problem but they were insistent. They then arranged for the police to take me to the dam! I was quite glad actually as it was more than 5km away and uphill. Often in Asia the people say “tooooooooooooo far, tooooooo far” when it’s just at the end of the road but this time it was “toooooo far”. There was a very funny sign at the dam about monkeys not liking women or children and I got into trouble for walking past a no entry sign which I didn’t see and waving to some men in a boat below!

I stopped off at Hat Din hot springs on the road between Thong Pha Phum and Bangkok timing my arrival with the arrival of the Russians. Out came the speedos again…and it was the first time I’ve ever seen 60 people come out of a bus all in their speedos and swimsuits! How do they do it? Where do they get changed? They loved the hot springs. And all the signs there were in both Russian and English! There was a funny one about not taking suitcases to the side of the hot springs. I wonder if the Russians are known for doing this?

Again the smiley Thai people just sat and looked at the hot springs, sometimes dangling their feet in and then went off to get some food. I had a thai massage. It was torture. I had to meditate to get through it. Never again!


Kanchanaburi, the Cave temple and the Russians at Erawan Falls…

15 Jan

After spending a delightful Christmas and New Year with my brother on the Southern Islands of Thailand I decided to make the most of my Thai 30 day visa and headed to Kanchanaburi, east of Bangkok.

I checked into the Jolly Frog “Backpackers”. Its Lonely Planet description of a “young backpacker” “happening” crowd should be rewritten to “perfect for old, fat, bald tattoed Western men either seeking or with young, beautiful Thai women”. Still it was amusing to watch them in the bar at night chatting to other “old Western men”. The mind boggles as to what they chat about.

I went out jogging after I’d checked in hoping to see the Bridge Over the River Kwai at night but was chased by Thai dogs, one of which tried to bite me through his muzzle (!) so gave up on the idea.

Next day I chose the safer option of a bike and cycled to the Bridge.

The railway bridge was built as part of the Thai-Burmese railway (415 km long) intended to link Thailand and Burma and as a supply route for the Japanese conquest of India. The Bridge was built with parts from Java, Indonesia.

I went to the Thailand Burma Railway Centre in town which explains everything about it including the huge number of lives lost during its construction.

113,000 died during the construction from exhaustion, malaria, cholera, beri beri and vicious beatings from their Japanese captors….13,000 of them were allied prisoners of war. The rest Asian labourers.

They called July to October 1943 the “speedo period”. During it, the men had to work 18 hours a day in hellish conditions, sleeping in bamboo huts or outside, ravaged by mosquitos, without shoes (it was during the rainy season), with a little watery rice to eat and few medical supplies.

They used spikes from trees as needles to insert drips, traded with locals to try to get some extra food and carved their food tins to count the days and their location. They tried to keep cheery by having competitions on the number of bowel movements per day. The winner would get a cigarette.

I cycled to a Buddhist Cave temple outside town. It was quite interesting with small Buddhas inside but was a bit creepy as I went deeper into it as I was alone. The Cave was used by the Japanese for weapons storage and torture during the War.

Local women were selling food outside the cave and as they had finished serving they shared their lunch with me which was very kind.

I took a local bus to Erawan Falls. I walked to the top of the falls and got the dry skin on my feet eaten by the little fishes. The best pool was number 7 at the top as it had the fewest Russian travellers.

Most of the Russians who arrived in a huge tour bus were at pool number 1 which involved the least walking from the carpark. The Russian men all wear tight speedo swimming shorts. I wish someone would open a bermuda swimming shorts shop in Russia. It would make life more pleasant for many people. The Russian girls are very slim and reasonably pretty until the age of about 25 when they seem to get fat. This is ok as by then they seem to have found Russian husbands wearing speedos.

The older Russian women complained all the time about the nice fishes.

The fishes got their revenge by eating the dry skin on the Russian women’s feet in a particularly vicious way. I tried to explain to the Russian women that it was nice to have the fish eating the dry skin and they charge 200 thai baht for this service in other places. They just shrieked loudly about this and then instructed their Russian husbands to dive in on top of me in the pool! Oh well!

By 2pm their big fancy tour bus had taken them away and I had the pool to myself as the Thai tourists there do not swim. They just look at the waterfalls, eat lots of food which they have brought with them and sleep! They also try to hike to the top of the waterfalls wearing high heels which is not very successful but they smile a lot and are nice so that’s ok!

Another day I took a local bus to Hellfire Pass. This is a really deep pass which the Pows were made to cut through hard rock for the railway to pass. They called it “hellfire” as at night with the lanterns burning (they had to work right through the night as the Japanese wanted the Pass cut very quickly) the men working thought it was like the fires of hell. There is a great museum here which has been set up by the Australian government. There is a good movie but I got into trouble when I sat down to watch it as you are only allowed to stand and watch it for some reason. I also got into trouble as I had a picnic with me and you are not allowed food there. So I went back outside and ate my food. A nice local man gave me some nice fruit from a tree. I don’t know the name of the fruit but it was delicious and kind of him to give it to me. He got it down from the tree with a very big stick.

I walked along the railway cutting. It is really good as you walk and press the buttons on the audio guide and it gives you a lot of information. It was very, very hot though and I could only imagine how hard it must have been to work here with hardly any food or water. One of the prisoners recounted that he came back after the War was over and was so sad that all the lovely teak trees had been cut down. One of the only things that kept him going was the lovely view of the trees.

After being woken very early in my Hotel in Kanchanaburi by a Thai women shouting about how she had not been paid by her “Western boyfriend” I left Kanchanaburi and headed further East to Sankhlaburi…next post adventures over East…where I got to use my Burmese words again with some of the refugees there…

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Myanmar (Burma) the human operated ferris wheel….

6 Dec

And the wheel in action…

I have never seen anything quite like it. I was in Bagan, Myanmar, the home of a thousand temples spread out amidst beautiful countryside.  Life goes on around the temples almost as if they are not there. So farmers plough their fields, children play and animals graze.  The temples were beautiful.  But what were all the travellers talking about? The ferris wheel. Someone had showed me a few snaps of it but said you really had to see it to believe it!  This was true!

The ferrie wheel was at a small fairground on the outskirts of Myanmar.  It was kind of an old-fashioned fairground where you could pop balloons with darts and win prizes, eat popcorn and drink sweet jelly filled drinks.  The centrepoint was the ferris wheel.

With the backdrop of funky music, the operators climb up the centre of the wheel to the top. There they sit. They chill. They tap their feet to the music. And wait until there are enough people to make it worth running the wheel. Then when the whistle goes off they go. Using their weight as momentum they get the wheel up and running, hanging off it as it turns by one arm, a foot and spinning down and then jumping off!  They also jump from cage to cage while the wheel is still turning.

No harnesses.

No safety.

No risk assessments.

Just strong arms, bright smiles and the luck of the Buddha!

What is Cao Daism all about?

1 Dec

A few days ago I visited the quite incredible Cao Dai Great Temple which is situated a few hours drive away from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).  This incredible temple pays host each day to four separate prayer sessions attended by the Cao Daiists.  They wear white clothing and women enter via one door and men via another.

I’ve been keen to learn about this “new” religion which was founded in 1926 so have been reading up about it.

It’s a fusion of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, native Vietnamese spiritualism, Christianity and Islam.  It has perhaps 2 million followers worldwide. Here is what their website says:-

CaoDai is a universal faith with the principle that all religions have one same divine origin, which is God, or Allah, or the Tao, or the Nothingness, one same ethic based on LOVE and JUSTICE, and are just different manifestations of one same TRUTH.


Humans shall observe LOVE and JUSTICE in order to be unified with GOD.

During the Vietnam War they formed their own army and having refused to support the Viet Cong they had their land confiscated by the new communist government.  In 1985 their temples were returned to them.

To practise Cao Daism it’s necessary to:-

  • be dutiful in all dealings with others
  • practise good and avoid evil
  • kindness to all beings
  • no killing, stealing, adultery, drunkenness or bad words
  • to be vegetarian 10 days a month
  • to participate in the 4 daily prayer sessions.

The aim is to avoid reincarnation by following the principles set out above.

The temple itself is incredible.

“Like a gingerbread house” was how one of my friends described it. The followers, all dressed alike, mingle about outside greeting each other before the prayers begin.  The prayers sound very musical and are punctuated by the followers bowing to the floor.  Tourists mingle around but are not allowed into the praying area while prayers are taking place.

Part of the “voyager’s Prayer”-

“As I brave the thorns and brambles,
May I set out safe and return sane.

In all, the temple is a fascinating place to visit and observe the followers and see the devotion in their faces.

And as I drift to sleep in my hotel in Saigon I ponder the “Sleeper’s Prayer”
“All material desires consume me by day,
Leading my mind and my actions astray.
Holy One, I am prostrating here to pray
That your lovingness will cause my mind to stay
Focused and clear on Your Divinity,
Taking no actions toward infidelity.
During my sleep, when my soul is at rest,
Superior Spirits, please guide me to what is best.
Toward my home in your Sacred Nirvana I yearn
So teach me the lesson which I need to learn.”

And yes the people of Vietnam are nice!

1 Dec

Two more random acts of kindess…sharing durian with me in a restaurant and a man in a shop spending an hour taking me to the Post Office so I could post Christmas presents to my family in Scotland….would thís happen at home I ponder?

Are the Vietnamese nice?

30 Nov

In short, and so far, yes!

I’ve been in Vietnam for about 5 days so far and have spent those days in Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City, as it is now called.  I’ve been worried about coming to Vietnam for a while.  Most travellers I meet told me it was a bit of a nightmare.  They regaled me with tales of bargaining for a bottle of water, fighting to get local prices and the general “meanness” of the Vietnamese.

Maybe I’ve just been lucky.  Maybe it’s because I’m with a mate and things like bargaining are always easier when you’re two but so far so good..a few examples…

When I first got off the bus..with my bags…a prime opportunity for advantage to be taken of me…I was given helpful and accurate directions from a local hotel owner to the hotel my friend had booked. No tricky business. No telling me it was miles away and I’d need a taxi.  The staff in the hotel were friendly to the point of almost doing gymastics to please us.

Day two in Vietnam brought more kindness…some local students walked us around a kilometre to find us cheap street food, told us the price, made sure it was what we wanted and then came back 5 minutes later to give us some local fruits (tiny apples served with chilli, salt and sugar).

Day three we visited the Cao Dai Temple and Chu Chu tunnels. The Cao Dai’ists (their religion is a combination of buddhism, confucuanism, taoism, native vietnamese spiritualism, christianity and islam) welcomed us into their temple and allowed us to sit through the service and take photos. They didn’t even ask us for a donation.

Day four I did my Christmas shopping at the local market.  Now shopping can be anything from fun to hell in my experience abroad.The hardest thing can be trying to work out what you should pay for something…ie not be taken advantage of but not so low that you are taking the mick…but in Vietnam, and again I stress, so far, this was easy…you ask the price, go to 50% and eventually you’ll get it for around 55 to 60% of the original price. No messing around. You know the final price and that’s it.

I then made some Christmas cards and asked the hotel owner whether he could possibly write “Happy Christmas” in Vietnamese on them. He did this with pleasure and was beaming from ear to ear throughout calling over his friend to see the cards I had made. Would this happen back home I wondered? I asked him also for some newspapers to wrap gifts in…two minutes later he produced this…again would this happen at home? A trip to the post office was again heaven.  They wrapped my parcel (free of charge), taped it all up, there was no queue and they charged me the correct price.  Seemed too good to be true!

It is fair to say that there is always someone selling something in Vietnam.

From the fake booksellers who carry upwards of 30 books in their arms and ply their trade around the bars, to the sellers of fans, cigarettes, watches, bouncy balls..you name it they sell it. If you say “no” it does usually work. A bit of humour can get a smile in my limited experience…to cigarettes “don’t want to die”, to books “have read them all” or “what’s your favourite”, to sunglasses…just put mine on, smile broadly and say “one pair’s enough”.

To moto drivers “ok, have moto already, you want lift with me?”, to any drivers trying to charge ridiculous price “no thanks not want buy moto just want lift”.  This last one can usually get a smile and again I say so far in Vietnam the people have enjoyed smiling.

I did get overcharged for a cocunut. It was my first day and I was still grappling with the currency. He was outside the Ho Chi Minh Musuem and position was all important.  But he did it with a smile and I now know the “local price” so won’t make that mistake again!

So, in short, so far, the Vietnamese are nice and let’s hope it continues.

Death of the book….

24 Nov

Is it the death of the book as I know it?

Tonight in Phnom Penh I tried desperately to swap an original Lonely Planet guidebook for a new one on Vietnam before I go to Vietnam in a few days.

Off I went to the bookshop which had a sign saying “buy, sell all books”.  She offered me a dollar for a used novel but nothing for the LP.

“Do not want” she said.

I walked alongside the Mekong River which is full of little stalls selling books (all copies).  I tried a new tact…”two books for one….good for you, good for me”.

“Cannot” was the reply.

I went into another bookshop where the vendor was hiding behind a pile of used books.  I asked her if she was interested in my LP.

She said “no, these books are gifts from travellers, cannot buy second hand but can sell you copy”.  I tried to tell her that the copies are poor quality and fall apart in a few days with their poor bindings…but to no avail.  She wouldn’t even swap two for one.

I tried a 7 year old book seller in the street carrying his little box of “copy, new books” around his neck.  He took a cursory glance at my books pointed to a tiny fold in the corner and said “no good, not new, no one buy old books”.  He tried to persuade me to buy some of his “copy, new books” wrapped in clear cellophane.

The trouble with all this copy book business which seems to be huge here is that the death of the original book seems upon us…no one wanted my second hand LP.  And I didn’t want a copy where the maps are so fuzzy you can’t read them at night, the edition date on the back has been updated by a year, and the pages fall out after a few days…

And if everyone buys copies what will happen to the book industry? And what happens to all these copy books which only last a few weeks?  Is it truly the death of the book as we know it?

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