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

Post 353: King Naresuan .....

I don’t make detailed plans. The 2nd law of thermodynamics tells me that everything in the universe starts out with high entropy (chaos), proceeds to low entropy (structure) and then inevitably reverts back to high entropy (chaos again). All of my travel plans start as a chaotic jumble of ideas that come together to form the perfect solution. The plan is perfect right up until I start to execute it and then it inevitably starts turning to shit … High Entropy to Low Entropy to High Entropy …. It’s an inescapable cycle and there’s absolutely no point in fighting it, so I don’t make plans.

So, after an eventful journey back from Hua Hin, my ideas of renting another bike were thwarted when the seasonal rains arrived early. They were wet and heavy and while I love riding bikes, I really don’t love anything quite that much. Ever since arriving in Thailand I’d seen posters advertising the latest blockbuster movie, “Naresuan”. I knew that Naresuan was a King of Siam, probably dating back to the 16th Century and that he had a liking for fighting on elephants. I wasn’t sure if he was real or mythical, but as every other person in Thailand seemed to have already seen the movie, I figured that it would be rude not to join them. I like going to the movies in Thailand because it reminds me of how things used to be back in Blighty; usherettes, Pearl & Dene advertising, standing for the national anthem and been shown to your chosen seat by a uniformed lady with a flashlight.

After watching forty-five minutes of Thai advertising and standing for the National Anthem, the movie began, three solid hours of it. The first thing that I realised was that this was in fact “Naresuan III” and I’d clearly missed the first two parts of the trilogy. The second thing that I noticed was a distinct lack of English subtitles. It was all in Thai and I understood barely a word of it. If I’d gone to the posh cinema in Siam Paragon then there would have been subtitles, but I’d chosen a provincial cinema in Lak Si and clearly English people didn’t tend to watch movies in that neck of the woods. The cinema was crowded and I really wasn’t sure about the etiquette involved in leaving a movie of such national historical importance before the ending. So I stayed, along with everybody else, and in a strange way, it was absolutely fascinating.

A little later research told me that Naresuan was born in Phitsanulok Province around 1555 and was King of the Ayutthaya region of Siam from 1590 until his death in 1605. As a King, Naresuan was most noted for his military campaigns and his struggles to free his people from Burmese oppression. I can remember being fascinated by the hundreds of headless Buddha statues during my earlier visits to the ancient temples at Ayutthaya. It all dates back to the time of Naresuan and the destruction caused by the invading armies that he finally repelled.

The more that I read about Naresuan the more fascinating and complicated his story became. Unfortunately the information available on the internet is a little disjointed and sparse, so I decided to explore a little further, and a little more physically. Next stop Phitsanulok, the birth place of Naresuan and home to the ’Beautiful Buddha’ that is said to have inspired his great victories. It’s not really a ’Plan’ ….. but in the absence of a plan then it’s the next best thing.

Post 352:Hua Hin, Thailand

Hua Hin was Thailand’s first real ‘Beach Resort’ but with the emergence of Phuket, and the islands of Samui and Chang etc., it seems to have almost dropped from the tourist radar. Nestled on the Gulf of Thailand about 300 km South West of Bangkok, for some reason Hua Hin was a place that I‘d never visited. Maybe being so close to Bangkok I’d always assumed that Hua Hin would be similar to Pattaya, and that’s certainly not a recommendation. Anyway, I figured that as I was so close then it would be rude not to drop in and find out for myself. I’d intended to start my travels in the South of Thailand but with major flooding I didn’t want to become another well meaning tourist getting in the way of the relief efforts. So, looking at my map I decided that Hua Hin would be the most southerly point on this journey and with bike rental in Bangkok being so rare and expensive, I decided to take the train.

It’s a three-hour journey and a 2nd class non-air conditioned ticket will cost you little more than the coins in the bottom of your pocket. It’s a little chaotic but once you understand the system then buying the ticket and boarding the right train is really quite easy. Because this is Thailand, the train journey will probably take an hour longer than the timetable suggested, but by the time that you arrive in Hua Hin you’ll be ready for the holiday. Trains in SE Asia are fun, but relaxing they are not.

Hua Hin railway station is noted for it’s architecture and it really is quite beautiful in a very chocolate-box sort of way. It’s busy but in a very relaxed and laid-back sort of way and a great entry point into the town itself. The first impression is that Hua Hin is about as far removed from the flesh-pot flea-pit of Pattaya as you could possibly imagine and while I’m sure that there is a seedier side to the resort, it is definitely nice and discreet. The town itself is a huge market place that bustles along without the chaos or intimidation of the more tourist orientated towns and that gives it a certain charm and family friendliness that keeps you constantly smiling. It’s not intimidating at all and walking the gentle streets or riding scooters around the area is an absolute breeze. Hotels in the town are plentiful and can accommodate most budgets. In the centre of town I find a small hotel with air-conditioning and a balcony for around 800 Baht, $10 per night. It’s clean, it’s friendly and as with most hotels the restaurant is probably quite abysmal but as this is Thailand you’ll probably be eating out on the streets anyway. The beaches however are perhaps not as free and inviting as those that you’ll find on many of the islands and those that have not already been taken over by the larger Hotels tend to by slightly more ’Industrial’ in nature. Another immediate thing that you’ll notice is a lot of Thai’s enjoying the beach, something that you don’t often find in the higher end tourist areas and for me, I always take that as a good sign.

In and around Hua Hin there isn’t the richness of temples and monasteries that you’ll find in other parts, but there is certainly enough culture and splendour to keep you entertained for a few days when you grow bored with lazing on the beach. The resort itself is spread along the coastline and unless you’re familiar with it, then local transport systems can be a little confusing. On the plus side, renting motorcycles and scooters is easy and a Honda Scoopy will cost around 200 Baht for a day, possibly including insurance but you never can tell, … this is Thailand after all. If you rent from outside of your hotel then you’ll need to leave your passport as security but in Thailand this is the norm and nothing to be too concerned about. If you’re going to be travelling away from Hua Hin on the bike then take photocopies of the passport, photo page and visa page, as these will be required for checking into other hotels during your stay. The people renting the bike to you will be able to provide you with the copies that you need. Although you’ll see many tourists and locals riding without safety helmets, don’t be tempted to do this yourself. The police will stop you and although the fine is quite small, it’s a pain in arse as far as administration is concerned. Anyway, Thai hospitals might be good, but you really don’t need to find that out for yourself.

The night markets in Hua Hin are busy and the food that’s served there is absolutely amazing. There are restaurants that serve ‘Western Menus’, but if you want to eat chips with everything then why the hell did you venture anywhere beyond Belgium? Don’t be afraid to try different local dishes and if you’re worried about the famous heat of Thai cuisine, then just ask the chef or waiter if it’s spicy … “Phet mai?”. The Thai answer will usually be a smiling “nid-noi”, but don’t worry, they want you to come back and eat there again so they wont try to force anything too hot or unidentifiable on you. Just try everything that you can and you might even surprise yourself.

After a short stay in Hua Hin, I decided that I was suitably relaxed and it was time to head back to Bangkok. The train was an option, but you can only have so much fun in one lifetime and I decided to take a seat in a more relaxing Mini-Van. It costs almost $5 for the 3 hour journey, but unlike the train you’re guaranteed a seat. Hundreds of these white Toyota Mini-Vans run daily between Bangkok and the major resorts and you simply buy a ticket and jump on the next available seat. It’s usually an experience but there are some experiences that I never want to repeat.

I’m against the use of child labour, especially when the child in question is driving my bus. He was clearly old enough to be driving but he looked no more than 12 and drove his Toyota accordingly. All twelve passengers sat white knuckled clinging to their seats and gasping at his antics. Weaving, speeding, changing lanes without warning, undertaking and overtaking. I was the only Westerner and the Thai’s are too dammed polite to say anything, so I told him to slow down … and he ignored me.

A screech of brakes and the continuous hoot of a horn from the latest cut-up car in the fast lane behind. A red BMW with an ’M3’ badge for show. The driver wasn’t impressed and forced the Mini-Van across to the hard shoulder where the youthful driver reluctantly stopped. The BMW driver was clearly an unhappy man and removed the Mini-Van driver from his seat through a barely open door. If the BMW driver was going to thump him, then it would be no more than the bus driver deserved, but when he opened his boot and pulled out a handgun …. the situation changed slightly.

The villain had become the underdog and while the Thai’s in the Mini-Van suddenly found things of amazing interest in their magazines, I donned the blue peace-keeping beret and harmony was quickly restored. I’ve no idea if the gun was real or loaded, but I guessed that the BMW driver was very unlikely to shoot me at the edge of a major highway …… I’m British don’t you know .. mai pen rai kap

Post 351: The Golden Mount .. Bangkok

The Golden Mount in Bangkok, or to give its full title, “The Golden Mount & Wat Srakesa Rajavaramahvihara” stands at the highest point in the city. As Bangkok is about as flat as Lincolnshire that really doesn’t say a great deal, but I’d always assumed that the peak was a natural feature. I had no reason to believe that it wasn't natural, it’s massive and obviously arrived here long before diesel engines and JCB’s. But it’s not, it’s actually man made, every last inch of it.
The temple complex at the bottom dates back to King Rama I and the foundation of Bangkok as Thailand’s new capital city in around 1782 (Thai year of 2325). During the 19th century King Rama III made several attempts at building a large Chedi structure on the site but because of the softness of the underlying earth, each attempt had failed and the partly constructed Chedi had collapsed. In desperation Rama III had ordered that a mount ’this big’ be built using mud and bricks to support the proposed Chedi. It seems that back in those days what Thai King’s wanted Thai Kings got, because as hills go this one is really quite substantial. In the end, the tall golden Chedi wasn’t added until the early part of the 20th century so I guess it’s safe to say that even the demands of supreme rulers can take time to complete.

The Chedi is the golden cone that sits on top of the mount and are often referred to as a ’Stupa’. There might actually be a difference between a Chedi and a Supa, but aside from geographical terminology, I’m really not aware of any. It seems that if the sturcture is shaped like your little finger, then it's a Chedi and if shaped more like your thinb, then it's a Supa. Chedi and Stupa, of which there are more than two hundred thousand dotted around the world, are all supposed to house 'Relics of The Buddha', usually a part of Buddha’s cremation ashes and are therefore places of pilgrimage. The Chedi on top of The Golden Mount contains relics that were donated to King Rama V by the British, and we no doubt stole them from India or Sri Lanka. It does make you think though ... if there was only one Buddha but there are two hundred thousand Chedi?

The best time to visit The Golden Mount is probably during the festival of Loy Krathong which takes place around the third weeks of November. The whole Mount is draped in red cloth and thousands of people join candle light processions walking the 318 steps to the summit. Loy Krathong is principally a religious festival, but don't let that put you off because as with all festivals in Thailand, they’re never without a decent party.

When I first climbed the Mount back in 1987 (ish) the view from the top was quite different. Back in those days all that you could see was smog, lots of it, thick and unlovely. There were very few high rise buildings to compete with the Mount back then, but it didn’t really matter because you couldn’t see anything anyway. Since then, although traffic density has probably increased ten-fold, most of the commercial vehicles now run on cleaner LPG and the air in Bangkok is actually quite fresh and clean. The fragrance on the Mount can be quite amazing with scent from the blossoms and incense filling the air and leaving a lasting impression. It seems that not too many Western tourists visit this place and that’s a shame. Maybe the fact that it’s a working monastery puts people off coming here, or maybe it’s the 318 steps? Whatever the reason, it certainly isn’t the entry price. Thai of not Thai, it costs just 10 Baht ( 10 pence ) to visit the Chedi so if you do manage to make it up all of those steps, please place a one hundred Baht note in the donation box in order to ensure that sites like this remain accessible to those who could simply not afford to pay any more.

One word of caution though, The Golden Mount is just a stones throw from The Grand Palace, and it seems that the 'Tuk Tuk Mafia' are becoming even more brazen in their attempts to fleece the unsuspecting tourist. If anybody ever tells you that The Golden Mount or The Grand Palace are closed for 'Special Prayers' or a 'Royal Visit' during daylight hours then ignore them, because it’s generally utter bollocks. They’ll offer, for a small fee, to take you on a tour of local attractions and upon your return, the Mount or Palace will be open to tourists once again. Their 'Tour' will inevitably include a visit to a Gem Store and a Tailor, the owners of which will probably show a remarkable resemblance to the person who told you that it was closed in the first place …. Mai pen rai kap

Post 350 Going pots in Siam

About 10 miles east of Korat in Central Thailand, is the district of Dan Kwian. For longer than anybody has cared to write things down, Dan Kwian has been Thailand’s centre for the production of pottery and ceramics. It’s not really signposted, but then maybe it is but the signs might all be written in Thai and unless the sign reads ‘Beer’ or ‘Puncture Fix’ then I’m just a little bit clueless. It’s easy enough to find, just head towards Udon Thani on the main road and all of a sudden the roadside markets stalls will change. You’ve now reached Dan Kwian. For a distance of around 2 miles both sides of the main road are saturated with ceramic outlets of every size. Don’t be fooled or put off by the bling fairgroundesque offerings that are displayed at the roadside. The garish stuff is only there to provide colour to draw in the passing traffic and the good stuff is hidden away behind it.
Pots and vases of every size and shape are produced on site by artisans using local clay. They tend to be family run small businesses with different members of each family learning a different skill necessary for producing the end product. Some outlets have their own turtleback kilns that are fired once a week, seemingly always operated by the men of the family. That’s probably not because the men are any more skilled than the women, but if they’re only working one day a week then it gives them more time for general idleness and drinking, which can often be the Thai way.

If you can discover the right outlet, and find out who is in charge, then they’ll produce absolutely anything to your own specification. If you don’t have your own specification, then show them a picture of Clarice Cliff, Joy Navastie, Moorcroft or even Troika and a week later, it‘s yours. Personally I love the big vases and urns that they produce here, but it’s a question of how to get them home and then finding a home to actually put them in. The other thing of course is the price. A one metre tall vase will cost around 800 Thai Baht or $20 for a single piece ….. and around half of that if your buying in quantity. There’s got to be a new business in there somewhere for me … mai pen rai kap