Discovering the world on $20 per day ......................

Post 244: Summer Holiday, The Village Temple

As Buddhist's, Thai's believe strongly in the process of making merit. The belief is that the actions taken in this life, will determine their position and happiness in the next. The three basic ways of making merit are to pray, to maintain the Buddhist commandments and to give alms. In a modern and lets face it, seemingly sinful city like Bangkok, this process can often feel at odds with what's happening in the current life. Even in the bars of Bangkok's notorious 'Entertainment Districts', every venue will have a small shrine where prayers are offered and food is given to the spirits of their ancestors. On Bangkok's streets, every morning between 6am and 7am, thousands of monks will walk in their saffron robes towards their various temples. While the tourist sleeps, Thai's will flock onto the streets and place food into the monk's bowls. They add freshly prepared rice, fish, vegetables and fruit to the monk's bowl and place candles, joss sticks and flowers into the monks shoulder bag. Then, they will bow their heads and receive a short blessing from the monk. As the monk performs the blessing, they will often pour water between them signifying that the merit that they receive is to be shared amongst the donors entire family. Most tourists probably miss this daily act, but to understand it, you have to leave Bangkok and travel to the more rural areas, places that are yet to be affected by the cultural pollution that has infected the towns and cities of Thailand.
In Bangkok, or in any other major town in Thailand, you'll see many young and middle-aged people. However, you'll seldom see a Thai of any great age. Thai's are historically village dwellers and the villages are the homes of individual extended families. The cities are for the young with careers, places for making money to provide for the extended family back home. Life will usually begin and end in a small village, often a village without a name. The city or town is for the middle part of life, a means to an end but never a place that a Thai will really consider to be 'home'. Home is a rural place, a place where the family can trace it's ancestors back to the times of deforestation, a time when the travellers levelled the land and began irrigating and planting their rice. The buildings are new, the traditions are ancient and the contrast between the two can seem irrational to the European eye. It is only out in the villages where everything begins to make sense.
We kick off our shoes and follow Tassaneeya up the burning marble steps into the coolness of the dark Village Temple. Thirty elders of Tassaneeya's family, mostly the womenfolk, sit around the floor on uniformly sized straw mats, mats upon which they'll pray, eat and sleep for a period of 24-hours. They're all dressed in exactly the same white robes, they share the same facial features and chatter together in chirpy Isaan Thai. It's a language derived from Thai and Lao, a language that I struggle to understand. Amongst the thirty sisters and cousins, I eventually pick out Tassaneeya's Grandma. She looks at me and cracks into the most beautiful and toothy gleaming smile. Three monks with shaven heads wearing less than pristine saffron robes, sit cross-legged on a small dais and quietly meditate. To the side of the dais stands a small and temporary internal room that wasn't there on my previous visits. It has walls of golden silk fabric that flow and shimmer beneath the cooling breeze from the whirring ceiling fans above us. In front of the curtains is a low altar covered with flowers, burning candles and strongly scented smouldering joss sticks. The chattering has stopped, all attention is now on us, or more particularly, on Hannah. As whispers turn to giggles, I pick out several often repeated words; 'sow, farang, narak', girl, European, lovely, Hannah is the subject of all conversation. The eldest monk gestures for us to come forward. We kneel in a line before the monks and offer the goods that we have brought for them. UHT milk, paper tissues and fresh fruit. They smile and together nod their approval. We knew that the monks would approve of our offerings because they operate something of an informal 'wedding list' system, we'd brought only the things that remained outstanding. The ritual of making merit might be ancient, but it's also totally practical. You give only what is needed at the time, nothing is wasted. The people take care of the monks and when the people become, for whatever reason, incapable of taking care of themselves, they can join the Temple as monks. A perfect system of welfare. We light candles and joss sticks on the altar in front of the curtained room before returning our attention to the three monks. They provided their blessing and smilingly indicate to Hannah that she should turn around. Forewarned by a fatherly whisper, Hannah turns around slowly and with hands clasped tightly together, head bowed, she speaks quietly, 'sarwasdee ka'. To the European eye and in perfect unison, thirty identical septuagenarian women return the smiling gesture and say aloud, 'sarwasdee ka'.
You had to be there, it was a moment in life that is unlikely to be repeated. In a slightly scary movie, this would have been a 'one-take' scene, perfect, surreal and so bloody funny. Everybody was laughing, excited that they'd met another European, a girl, and a girl who spoke some Thai. We leave the temple and wander outside in the Temple gardens. We're still laughing, Hannah asks me what 'the thing' behind the curtains was? There was no point in trying to hide it from her, the whole point of traveling in this way is to discover. I told her what was behind the curtain and surrounded by strongly scented joss sticks ...... but unfortunately we wont be here for the Senior Monks final funeral on Monday.

Post 243: Summer Holiday, Leaving London

Heathrow hotels charge upwards of £60 per night. That's equivalent to staying five or six nights at hotels in Thailand. No contest. An uncomfortable night on the free but inadequate benches of Terminal 3. Cold metal, multiple armrests, too little comfort, zero sleep. The Etihad tickets had been amazingly cheap. I assumed this meant that the planes would be empty. Boarding at 8am for the 7-hour flight, no spare seats, no room to sleep. Muslims returning to Abu Dhabi for the holy month of Ramadan. Two hours in transit at Abu Dhabi's new airport before boarding the 6-hour onwards flight to Bangkok. Again, no spare seats, no room to sleep. Muslims escaping Abu Dhabi for the holy month of Ramadan.
Bangkok; hot, humid and wonderfully vulgar. Hannah's first visit to South-East Asia, a culture shock of some magnitude. All personal space is abandoned at Suvarnabhuni Airport, a taxi to Sukhumvit Road, kind offers of golf, massages, tailored suits and precious gems all politely declined. The Guest House, £12 for two rooms. Fifth floor, no lift. Hannah gets a room with balcony and a wonderful view over Bangkok. Next door, I get the buildings two giant watertanks and the promise of a reasonably priced night of sleeplessness. The prospect of a 7-hour bus journey to Khon Kaen is unpopular. I revisit the purveyor of forged air tickets on Sukhumvit Soi 4. It's closed. Wednesday 12th of August, the beginning of the grouse season in Britain, the Queen's birthday in Thailand. A public holiday.
North of Bangkok, we arrive in Khon Kaen. The vast and inexpensive hotel, always empty, always welcoming. A conference for H1N1, the threat from the swine flu pandemic has followed us into Asia. The hotel is full, all hotels in Khon Kaen are full, bad timing, poor planning. I consider the prospect of sleeping at 'The Village'. No great problem for me but a hardship too far for a teenage town dweller with an addiction to all things electrical. I smile and I beg, they find us two rooms. The first proper nights sleep, pressed cotton sheets and cool air conditioning. Hannah will need it, and so will I.
The huge silver pick-up truck bumps across unpaved roads that weave between flooded paddy fields surrounded by lush green trees. It's growing season in Thailand. Entire families work as teams in the fields. Bent double for hours on end beneath wide brimmed hats and a blazing sun, not an inch of flesh exposed. The rice is planted by hand. it grows lush and thick before before transplanted into flooded fields where it flourishes until harvest. These are hardy people, Isaan people. Their long eared, long faced cows are more sensible. They shelter beneath the broad leaves of the banana trees as they watch their masters toil. Eventually, we arrive in the second village, the home of Tassaneeya's family, a village still without a name. As Hannah climbs out of the truck, a small crowd of children gathers. The adults, more reserved than their offspring, stand back and observe us from a distance. I was not the first European that the villagers had seen, but for most of them, I was the first that they had met. Now Hannah was something completely different, a giant European girl, a first for everybody. I could hear the chatter of the adults in the background and the giggling of the children closer to us. They wanted to reach out and touch Hannah, perhaps to see if she was real. It was quite surreal, possibly a once in a lifetime experience for her.
The village seemed to be quieter than usual, none of the older generation were outside to greet us. A fast exchange in too fast Thai. Tassaneeya then explains their absence. The village elders are 'making merit' at the Temple. They will be spending the night there, paying their respects to Tassaneeya's Grandfather and the senior monk who both recently passed away. We too should go to the Temple, and we did. But, I'll try to convince Hannah to describe exactly what happened next.

Post 242: Holiday Season

When it comes to English weather, you can only have so much fun before you finally admit defeat and throw in the beach towel. But escaping these shores in the summer is expensive. Whenever the schools are in recess, the cost of flights increases and the price of sunshine moves further beyond your budget. For me, the answer is to head for the rain and to hope for the best. It's 'Low Season' in Thailand and I managed to book flights for myself and Hannah when they were still relatively cheap. It will be Hannah's first taste of travelling. Nothing extreme, apart from the limited budget. Hopefully a temporary separation from hair straighteners and meals that don't need to be unwrapped will prove less traumatic than she currently fears. We'll be roughing it for a night in Heathrow Airport before flying via Abu Dhabi to Bangkok. We'll spend a couple of days in and around 'The Village'' close to Khon Kaen and then back to Bangkok for some therapeutic shopping that should help to reduce any teenage trauma. From there, it's down to a beach hut in Krabi for a few days before returning home via every landing strip in the Middle East. Hopefully, Blighty will still be here when we return at the end of August.
Meanwhile, I think it's fair to say that 2009 hasn't been Gordon Brown's finest year. I suspect that for him the summer recess couldn't have arrived soon enough. For the first few weeks of his family vacation, Mr Brown is spending time with his family in the Lake District and by avoiding flying, he'll be helping to save the planet. Then, he'll return to Kirkcaldy where he'll be undertaking voluntary work and thus helping to save his reputation. To prevent this altruistic act from looking like any another calculated publicity stunt, the Downing Street press office has quietly announced that this volunteering should not be a matter for media attention. Shoot me.
Back in Westminster, Deputy Leader Harriet Harman had moved loudly into Number 10. It's interesting that she's chosen this particular time to announce that 'Men' are to blame for the current financial crisis. She's probably quite correct in her assumption that men are to be blamed, but as she makes her feet comfortable beneath Downing Street's shagpile, I wonder if she'll be brave enough to name the 'Men' she's referring to? Harriet is undeniably ambitious, but Gordon needn't worry too much about her current bout of sniping. Next week she''ll be gone and replaced by his trusty sidekick, Peter Mandelson. In turn, Mandelson will later be replaced by Jack Straw who'll keep things ticking along until Gordon returns to the helm at the end of the summer recess. Hold on. I know that Alan Sugar's been drafted in to support Gordon's Cabinet, but this is beginning to sound like a very scary episode of the apprentice. The contestants may be quite familiar to us, but I think we can guess who Peter Mandelson is hoping will get ''Fired'' and ''Hired''.
When Lord Mandelson of Foy in the county of Herefordshire and Hartlepool in the county of Durham, First Secretary of State, Secretary of State for Business Innovation and Skills and Lord President of the Council moves into Downing Street next week, I suspect that included within his personal baggage there will be a tape measure. Mandelson may lack many things, but like Harriet Harman, ambition isn't one of them. It seems that having saved Gordon Brown's arse, Mandelson has been given the freedom of Westminster and is using it to advantage. His own advantage of course. Gordon Brown must surely have enough vision to see that those around him are planning their own advancement based upon his demise.
Lord Mandelson hasn't employed any subtlety in his efforts to undermine the Prime Minister. He doesn't need to be subtle, Brown is a fighter on the ropes, punch drunk, upright but unconscious and clinging to every possible glimmer of hope. Mandelson privately devised, and then publicly destroyed, the obviously flawed message of 'Tory Cuts'' verses ''Labour Investment''. He volunteered Brown for a ''Presidential Debate'' that he can never win and that he'd already declined. I can only guess that it was the Lord of Darkness himself who advised Gordon Brown to continue the Government's stupid and immoral challenge to the levels of compensation paid to service men and women injured in the line of duty. I'm no fan of Brown, nor a supporter of Cameron and Clegg, but they're all infinitely preferable to the twice disgraced and unelected hubris horror that is Lord Peter Mandelson.
Perhaps I'm being paranoid, but my theory is this: Mandelson plans the complete the public destruction of Gordon Brown and thus ensures that Cameron's Conservatives win the 2010 General Election. A task that with Brown's assistance, he seems to have already achieved. Prior to the election, Mandelson will relinquish his many titles and stand as a Labour MP in the safest possible seat. Following a humiliating election defeat, Mandelson will run, with Harriet Harmen as his Deputy, and gain the leadership of the Labour Party. The Tories will inherit an economy where for many years to come the only thing in the black will be Alistair Darling's eyebrows. They'll have to increase taxes and drastically reduce Government spending. Within five years of necessary but unpalatable economic pain, we'll grow bored with the austerity and vote New New Labour back into power. Peter Mandelson, First Lord of the Treasury, Prime Minister ...... mission accomplished.

Post 241: Old Dog ... New Trick

For a while now I've considered myself to be 'Middle-Aged'. Then last week I sat down and did the maths, middle-aged my arse, I'm 'Old'. Back when I was just middle-aged, I could have done the maths in my head, but now that I'm old, just like when pulling on my waterproof over-trousers, I'd had to sit down to do it. Half of seventy-four is thirty-seven, and that's a particular milestone that I passed almost a decade ago. I didn't notice old age creeping up on me, maybe it didn't creep, maybe it just pounced on me from nowhere. Ageing is a slow process that begins at birth, but becoming old is something that seems to happen almost overnight. Don't start shedding tears, because I'm certainly not. I'm still far too young to die from old age and being old actually comes with benefits.
When I was young, which for forty-five years I was, I often worried that when I eventually got old my mind would begin to wander. The truth is that my mind has started to wander, but thankfully I know the reason why and it's not an entirely negative thing. When you're old you think about sex an awful lot less than you you did when you were young and as a bloke, it's amazing just how much mental capacity suddenly becomes available for alternative thoughts. It opens up a whole new world of discovery and I'm now beginning to understand why so many men of a certain age return to motorcycling. It's not that they're trying to recapture their collective youths', it's just that for the first time in years they've had enough spare mental capacity to start thinking above the belt.
For example, I've been shaving for thirty-five years and while the first five years might have been purely voluntary, the following thirty have been a necessary pain in the arse. I've missed a few days here and there but it's definitely never been more than a week. For me, the itch of four-day stubble is akin to having facial haemorrhoids and no matter how much I loathe the act of shaving, it's an awful lot better than the irritating alternative. During the early years of shaving I experimented with various combinations of foams and blades before finally settling on a decent combination and turning it into a standard and familiar routine. Same time each day, the same number of facial strokes and the same temperature of water etc. It's a ritual, a subconscious OCD, an act that can be carried out on auto-pilot and as such allowed an additional five minutes to think about other things, probably sex. Now that I'm old, and clearly not thinking about sex quite as much, I once again sat down to consider the maths.
Over a period of thirty-five years, I've spent five minutes of each day painfully stroking my lathered face with a razor. That's more than forty days and nights and while that's a lot less time than I've spent eating, it's an awful lot more time that I've spent actually having sex. I'd thought that after spending so much time shaving, there'd be little left for me to learn about the art. But I was wrong. last week I picked up a tiny bottle of 'Shave Oil' made by King of Shaves. It actually costs more than a large tube of shaving gel and the price might deter many blokes from trying it, but don't be put off. It's a shaving revelation. Thankfully for us forgetful old folks, the bottle contains clear instructions for use. The challenge now is not to forget that I've discovered it .... and then not to forget that I've forgotten.