Thinking & Feeling

“The world is a tragedy to those who feel, but a comedy to those who think.” Horace Walpole

Wednesday, 27 October 2004

Kruger Park trip

We went to the Kruger Park for a week, returning last week Tuesday. It turned out better than I expected it to be. I was actually not looking forward to it much at all.

A whole crowd went up to celebrate a friend's 40th over the week-end. Most flew. Others took and extended holiday and spent a whole week in the park. We didn't have the luxury of lots of time or money, so we drove up with friends and their 2 boys in their mini bus.

4 adults and 4 boys - under 5, in a mini-bus for a week and doing over 4000km! It didn't seem like a brilliant plan to me, but I thought it could be an adventure...

Everyone was amazing in the car and the kids played quietly together most of the time. We swapped them around a lot, so they had a different partner after each stop, and a different supervising adult too, and I think that was the secret to keeping them entertained and out of each other's hair.

We had activities for them to do. A box of small toys, a box of books, and a work book each with pictures of animals to cut and paste and crayons and colouring in pages. That kept them busy for AGES. They worked in their books everyday. I was actually amazed at how much attention they gave their books, and how well they looked after them - even the little guys both just about 3 years old now. We also had lots of interesting snacks (nuts, raisins, oaties cereal, fruit, caramel pop-corn, lolli-pops, crisps, dried fruit, biscuits etc).

Even though we were in the car for more than 7 hours each day they handled it fine, and in a whole week we only got 2 requests to stop to wee other than at our designated stopping points. We managed to get most of our mileage done early in the day, so that they had the afternoons and evening to run and play at our stop over spots, so that worked well.

We took 2 nights to drive up and 2 nights back and only had 2 nights in the park. The children also enjoyed the park and game spotting more than I expected, and Griffin (luckily) really enjoyed Impala spotting, and was excited every time we saw one, he'd yell "IMPALA!", and then tell him self "Well spotted". Luckily there are literally 100s of thousands of Impala, so he was continually amused. The park is VERY dry at the moment, and there actually wasn't a lot of game to be seen. Nearly all the rivers are dry, and apparently most of the Impala are losing their pregnancies :(. We were lucky to see Lion twice and Cheetah twice, both times quite close, all the boys loved that.

When we were looking at 2 ground-hornbills on one side of the vehicle, I caught Griffin dangling his arm out the other side to another ground-hornbill he'd found singing 'come bite me, come bit me!'. I had to explain that that was not a good idea! I think he was trying to make things more interesting.

Quinn started drawing really sweet pictures of the animals he'd seen in his book on the way home, and his ground-hornbill is excellent Everyone has recognised it.

So I think it was a wonderful worthwhile trip in the end which we all enjoyed. It was nice to spend so much time right with the children , and not have to do anything other than interact with them for most of the time.

Tuesday, 10 August 2004

T's and A's gone.

Well Griffin had his surgery on Friday.
We arrived at 7am as requested, in the aftermath of the Cape Town flood.He was calm and cheerful, and didn't seem to notice that he'd been given nothing to eat or drink. I took him straight from bed and left him in his pyjamas, so I think he was still quite sleepy. He was quite excited about being at the hospital, and would happily tell anybody he saw that he was at the hospital because the doctor was going to make him better.

We went into the children's ward observation room and the anaesthetist came through to check his breathing and lungs, and pronounced him to have the healthiest sounding chest all week. He was weighed at 15.3kgs. We went into the ward, where we were to be 3rd of 4 ops by our ENT.

The 2 girl before us were getting grommets, and the little girl after was also having tonsils & adenoids removed and ears drained. Griffin was second youngest, but they were all under 4. He was very chuffed and happily settled into the Jail-like cot hospital bed. He lay down and got under the covers and everything.

After a while he was given 'Stopayne', and I was told to keep him still. Of course he then no longer wanted to be still so I took him to the play corner where he started playing. He suddenly got very clumsy, and started falling over and stumbling etc. I realised the 'stopayne' had been spiked with something stronger, and put him back in his jail. By this time he was really drunk, and was giggling madly. This got me laughing, and we both found each other very funny for a while. A nurse came past and said, ' I also want some of that', to which Griffin giggled and said, ' I ALSO want some of that!'. It was all quite silly.

We were eventually called to go up to Theatre at about 9am. I was allowed to carry him up while a porter brought his bed along. While waiting for our turn the nurses gave him a balloon, each child gets a balloon with their name and an adjective on it. His was 'Cute Griffin'. After nearly dozing off from the pre-med he perked right up and started playing with the balloon. Eventually he was out the bed and running around like a lunatic...

We were called in just before 9:30,and I carried him into the theatre and sat on a stool with him in my lap. I was told to put the mask over my face to show Griffin, and the anaesthetist then did the same - I had visions of both of us passing out on the floor like in that bed advert! I then placed the mask over Griffy's face, he sat still and smiling, and 'smelling the mask' while the gas was cranked up slowly until he quietly closed his eyes and drifted off. The doctor said, 'if there was a textbook way of doing that, that was it!'.

I was asked to lift him and place him on the operating table. The ENT told me to kiss his cheek, and then he took me out telling me exactly what he'd be doing and what was going to happen. He told me to go have some coffee and come back at 9:55, which I did. I must say the whole process was made very calm and friendly.

Pretty much on the dot of 9:55 the ENT arrived back saying he was done, and everything was fine. He said the tonsils and adenoids looked pretty bad, and were very fibrous. He said Griffin had had more infections than I realised. He also said his ears were filled with thick, gooey, fluid and took some time to clean out. He told me they were waking him up and making sure everything was fine and then they'd bring him to me.

Sure enough 2 minutes later a nurse appeared holding him in her arms, he was crying and sounded very miserable. I gathered him in my arms and sat on a chair and rocked him. He was clearly not happy and his first words were, ' Mommy I want to go home'. It was heart-breaking. I carried him down to the ward and sat in a lazy boy chair. After 10 minutes he fell asleep and had a good sleep. He woke up once or twice and cried a bit more and then asked to sleep in the bed. He had a long sleep. At 2pm he was offered some ice-cream and jelly. He was not interested in either at all. The nurse wanted him to eat or at least drink something before we went home, and preferably wee too. We offered him juice, yoghurt, and custard, but he still wasn't interested...

Then he suddenly said, ' I want some bread', and he was adamant. So the nurse brought him some buttered bread, which he wolfed down and then demanded tea! They were very surprised...

The doctor declared him fine and sent us home. That night he ate 2 more slices of bread and half a roll of rolos. He does get sore if he goes too long without Myprodol, but once he's taken it he can eat pretty much anything. He is already breathing better and sleeping more soundly at night, and after hearing how 'vrot' his tonsils were I am very glad we went ahead with the op.

I must say spending the whole day just being with him was lovely too. I literally just sat and held him for hours, and that night Quinn was away sleeping over at a friend so I just sat and held Griffy on the couch, with no bedtime or any routine, just being. It was lovely.

Thursday, 29 July 2004

My baby needs surgery...

Ok the topic was a bit dramatic, but as we generally stay away from the medical profession as a rule and stay very healthy on the whole anyway, my children haven't seen very much of doctors in their lives. So having to send one for surgery is a bit of a shock to me.

Quinn has had antibiotics once (which I don't think he even needed), and Griffin has admittedly had them a whole 3 times, always for bacterial tonsillitis. Our family doctor, who we see once or twice per year at most (I hope she doesn't go out of business because of our lack of support!) told us when Griffin was still quite little that he has 'kissing tonsils' which we'd need to keep an eye on. I didn't really know what that meant, but after some reading have found that it refers to tonsils which touch in the middle, normally because they are enlarged.

I have recently noticed that his tonsils look HUGE, they are big fat spongy red things that are really obvious in his throat, and they are like that all the time. That in itself wouldn't really bother me, but we have also noticed that since he has been close to a year old he has suffered from sleep apnoea. While asleep he breathes in a laboured deep husky way. Slowly his breathing gets slower and shallower and then stops altogether for a good few seconds (feels like ages!). He'll they GASP and take in a big deep breath, and then start the cycle over again. This causes him to sleep very restlessly, because he actually has to partially wake up with each gasp. We
now let him sleep propped up on 2 thick pillows, which helps to keep his airways open, but we still don't think he gets enough restful sleep though because he can sleep for a 3-5 hour stretch in the day time.

Apparently is severe enough this can cause restlessness, ADD symptoms, learning disability (due to impaired concentration from tiredness), failure to thrive, and general ill health. You need to get enough deep sleep to really function properly. I remember how I felt when I wasn't getting any good deep sleep stretches with new borns, you are like a zombie eventually...

So all of this has been adding up, and I have started to suspect we were going to have to take some action. We finally took him to an ENT specialist yesterday. Who pronounced that his tonsils are indeed 'very big' and 'not normal'. We had an adenoid x-ray taken and his adenoids are also way bigger than normal, and are further constricting his airways. It was also found that he has fluid on both ears, in fact the doctors thinks he must be battling to hear clearly at the moment. He thinks the ear problem is a reaction to the excessive swelling and infection on the tonsils and adenoids.

So he has recommended we do 'T's & A's' meaning a tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy, as well as draining the ears. He doesn't want to put grommets in, because he thinks once the ears are drained and the T's & A's done, his ears will settle and stay clear.

So I have to take my baby for the op next Friday. I do think he needs it, and I am sure it will help in the long run, but I know it's not an easy op, and it's really painful and takes quite a while to recover from. I wish we didn't have to send him at all. At least the doctor is lovely, and has a great manner with children. Griff really liked him. He has also said I can be with him right into the operation theatre, and I will only need to leave once they have sedated him.

I'll let you know how it turns out.

Sunday, 2 May 2004

Amazing Thailand - Part 8 - Taboos, FantaSeas and Goodbyes

So after breaking my most strictly enforced childhood rule of not riding motorbikes (sorry dad!), and feeling suddenly rebellious at the ripe old age of 30, I decided to go completely wild...

We wound our way over the hilly pass between Patong and Karon to return to our neighbourhood, and there to rendezvous for my appointment with ... a Tattoo artist!
I had been toying with the idea of getting a tattoo for several years, but could never quite decide what, or where, and had never got to the point of actually doing it. I didn't want anything big or aggressive, and new I needed something that had meaning for me, and that I wouldn't hate after a while. Plus I had never seen any place that I'd want to have one done at. Somehow all the tattoo parlours I have seen in South Africa are seedy, biker-type joints, and just didn't feel right to me.

I had been discussing the possibility with Richard throughout the trip, and we had actually been into a few to look at their pictures and see some in progress. Richard has a stylised Gecko on his left shoulder, which I have always liked. I also found myself fascinated by the geckos in Thailand which are really cute and are everywhere at night. I was also buying little toy geckos as gifts for children etc. During our Island day trip I had sketched a design with two geckos in a kind of yin-yang shape, to represent my 2 boys.

That night we took the sketch to one of the local Tattoo shops, and showed it to the resident Tattooist, Nom. He went and sat down. We meanwhile started looking through his albums, finding various designs we liked... 10 minutes later Nom appeared and showed me his vastly improved design based on my sketch, and I thought he was just sitting back waiting for me to chose something from his collection! I mentioned colours and he again wandered off. He returned having shaded the picture beautifully. I liked the picture so much that I told him I'd do it - but I felt it was a little big. He promised to shrink it for me, and I arranged to meet him the next night.

And so there we were back at the designated time, swigging red bulls (which cost only Bt12 there (R2!)). Nom as promised had shrunk his design and showed me versions at 80, 70 and 60% the original size. I opted for the 60% one. I was slightly nervous about the pain factor, as I had heard people say it's excruciating. I asked him about it, saying 'If I have given birth with no pain relief I should be ok, right?'. He just smiled and shrugged. I thought that was a bit ominous, but I think he was probably thinking, 'How the hell should I know lady?'.

My chosen spot was my right shoulder so I straddled the chair, while Nom traced the design onto carbon paper. Having been told it would take about 1.5 hours I was mentally preparing myself for the long haul, and braced myself. Nom is pretty meticulous about hygiene, and everything is carefully sterilised and covered etc, so there was no problem with that. He started by tracing the design onto my shoulder with the carbon paper, and then got us to inspect it to make sure it was exactly the way I wanted it. It was. He then lifted the tattoo gun thingy-magig, or whatever it's called, and I prepared myself for the worst.

Ok it *IS* sore. The feeling is a combination between being sliced with a scalpel and burned with a soldering iron - but it gets to a point of pain and no further, and I found it quite bearable. I do think I have a high pain threshold though, and I am quite good at being able to zone out and breathe through pain. So I was focussing through it, while Richard was bouncing around taking photos. I told him he could stop thanks, as that was getting distracting!

After a while I noticed the TV in front of me and asked for it to be turned on. Nom chose the DVD 'Kill Bill' to watch, which I thought was a bit macabre under the circumstances. Once watching TV I was actually easily able to distract myself from the pain of the tattoo, and was fine. Then in no time he was finished! It only took 30 minutes. The quoted 1.5 hours was total time for chatting, tracing, cleaning up - everything. So it was actually over really quickly.

So there you go, I am now sporting 2 green and blue geckos on my right shoulder...

That left us with only one more day and night of our holiday. The next morning was our birthday! I officially turned 30 and Richard turned 40. It was a perfect warm and sunny day. We enjoyed a hearty breakfast, and then went out to enjoy the last few hours of our bike hire. We rode up to the look out pint on the way to Chalong, and took photos of the view of the beaches. We also went past Kata and Kata Noi beach, and generally just enjoyed being in the area.

We had arranged to go to the Phuket FantaSea show that night to celebrate our birthdays and to enjoy the last night of our holiday in style.
"Inspired by Thailand’s rich and exotic heritage, Phuket FantaSea not only showcases the charm and beauty of Thailand, but also enriches ancient Thai traditions with the wonder of cutting edge technology and special effects. The result is a stunning 140-acre theme complex, packed with a multitude of activities and entertainment: a festival village with carnivals, games, handicrafts and shopping; a 4,000-seat restaurant offering a grand buffet of Thai and international cuisine; A breath-taking Las Vegas-style theatrical show, where state-of-the-art technology and special effects enhance the beauty of Thailand's Myths, Mysteries and Magic in a wondrous extravaganza certain to delight everyone."
This was in fact the most expensive thing we did the whole trip (relative to the other prices, costing Bt 3000 (R500) for both of us), but only one of few very touristy things we'd done, and we thought it would be an exciting and entertaining experience. Also having seen the African Footprint production in Cape Town earlier this year, we thought it would be interesting to see the contrasting cultures and heritages in a similar show.

We collected at our hotel and taken through to Kamala Beach (the other side of Patong) where the Theme park is situated. We met some young British honeymooners on the way, who were telling us how they had managed to avoid being ill by eating only 'safe' food like spaghetti bolognaise. I could not believe it, and I reckon you probably have more chance of being ill by eating non-local food anyway! Twits.

On arrival at FantaSea the sky opened and the rain came pouring down, there was a bit of chaos and uncertainty after that with people scattering all over. We followed a crowd and soon found ourselves in the Huge Kinnaree Buffet restaurant. While there was a huge a mount of food on offer, and it was fairly varied, and we certainly ended up eating far more than we needed, it was interesting to note that the food was neither more elaborate nor better tasting than the cheap food we had been eating from the bungalow restaurants and street vendors. So the rule that more formal and expensive is not necessarily better definitely holds up here. Never the less it was nice to be able to sample some weird and wonderful things including sweet black jelly lumps covered with crushed ice and corn kernels, as well as sushimi and roast duck with the head still on etc!

To be honest I wouldn't recommend this restaurant, and it's better to take the option without the meal (which is a bit cheaper), as you can get reasonably priced drinks and snacks out in the general theme village area. However since it was bucketing with rain when we arrived, the buffet was actually probably the best bet on that day, and once we staggered out with full bellies, the rain had ended and the evening was becoming quite lovely.

We wandered around the games, entertainment and shops in the 'village' until it was time to go in for the 'Legend of a Kingdom show'. This is strictly controlled and all cameras etc have to be handed in before entering the theatre. The show was brilliant. It was very varied and very professionally produced. There are were loads of animals involved from 30 elephants, to water buffalo, goats, donkeys, doves and even chickens (I still don't know how the chicks were trained!). They showed the history, heritage, dance and skill through a series of re-enactments of battle scenes and dances, as well as some circus, magic and comedy type acts. During the battle scenes there were flashes so bright you had to close your eyes, and massive booming explosions, as well as people flying in on chords and people shooting through holes that appeared and disappeared in the stage floor. It was really impressive and that fact the elephants could stand there dead still throughout was amazing. They are extremely well trained, and from what we saw, very well handled too.

After the show and waiting in line to get our cameras back, we again mingled in the village area, and this time the young elephants from the show where out on display. I think they like them to socialise with people to get more tame and relaxed etc. Both Richard and I got a chance to sit on a 3-4 year old elephant, which was fun. I was afraid of standing on the poor things leg with my shoe, but they assured me that it wouldn't hurt him. Again people were amazed at seeing this. It really does seem that South African people are most used to and comfortable with trying new things, as most other people seem to just stand back in fear. I felt privileged to be allowed to sit on such a big and majestic animal, and didn't find them at all frightening.

I think a lot is said about the elephants in Thailand. They are used a lot, and they are very much part of the Thai culture and work force. They are used the way horses and mules are used in other countries. Apparently in some place they get over worked, neglected and abused, but all the elephants we saw seemed to be well looked after and well treated. While being fully used in daily life these huge animals are also very much celebrated and revered, and elephant tributes can be seen everywhere. They definitely play a big role in the Thai heritage, including mythical tales of flying elephants and strong friendships with elephants who save their young friends, or who lead their riders to victory etc.
"There is a strong bond between the Thai people and elephants. Elephants hold a revered place in society, because of their symbolic importance to monarchs, religion, and the nation as a whole."
"THE ELEPHANT has been a cultural icon of Thailand since ancient days. Inhabiting the lush mountain forests long before the rise of the first civilizations in the land that is now modern-day Thailand, these intelligent pachyderms (as zoologists insist on calling them) were found apt to domestication by man. Their great size and enormous strength were harnessed in many ways, and they became man's ally in labour and warfare. It is doubtful if the abundant teak trees of the northern woodlands could have been exploited so fully without these leviathans to haul the trunks (pardon the pun) to the rivers that were the highways of old. Elephants played their part too in the numerous battles fought between the armies of Thailand and Burma. Towering over the field of combat, fully panoplied and girded for war, they must have been an awesome sight.
But the elephant came to mean much more to the Thai people than a mere beast of burden. It has become a symbol of fortune, and the superstitious will pay to pass beneath the animal's body and receive a share of the luck that it carries. White elephants, through their very scarcity, adopted an importance of their own, and became the rightful property of the reigning monarch. This led to the super imposition of a white elephant on the red field of the national flag of Siam, as Thailand was once known. Early Siamese coins featured an engraved elephant, and their images can be found in abundance in the compounds of many of the older temples.
The Asian elephant, the species found in Thailand, is renowned for its intelligence and is known to actively think about its actions, rather than merely memorise instructions. The creature also has a fine memory and the expression "An elephant never forgets" entered the English language long ago. The term "White elephant", meaning something given that is not wanted, entered western speech many years back, and it is reputed that this originated in old Siam. It was the custom of the monarch to bestow the highest praise by giving a royal white elephant to a courtier as a mark of especial favour, together with a tithe of land to support the animal's needs of grazing and forage. The same gift could also be given by these shrewd rulers to show displeasure, as no land would be provided, and the gift that could not be refused had to be fed at the offender's expense.
Nowadays the elephant is more fully occupied entertaining the multitude of tourists who visit Thailand, but its magnificent image lives on, advertising many modern events or attracting visitors to the numerous shops and factories that cater to their demands."
So ended our last evening in Thailand.
The next morning it was time to pack up, and get ready to say goodbye to a country that had always held a great amount of magnetism and intrigue for me. I had already fallen in love with the place, as so many people do, and was torn between wanting to stay there forever, and been keen to get back home to my children.
We spent the last few hours waking around one last time, and spending the last of our cash. Richard also decided to get a small yin-yang tattoo inside the curve of his gecko's tale, so we visited Nom, who was happy to accommodate our last minute request. The last hour before our airport transfer arrived I indulged myself with a last Thai massage, and I floated back to the hotel just in time to find the minibus packed and waiting for me. Telling myself I'd be back. We waved goodbye to the Andaman Seaview, and then Karon Beach and then Phuket and finally Thailand as we headed back to Kuala Lumpur.
We had a long wait in Kuala Lumpur airport, as our plane had been delayed. We shopped until the shops closed and then stretched out on some very uncomfortable chairs, with some endless Malaysian soap opera being televised from every direction. It got freezing cold, and then just as I managed to doze off we were called to board our flight. It was already 2am. The flight home was fairly uneventful. We had a 1-hour wait in Johannesburg, where we wasted no time phoning home and waking the kids at 6:30 am. It was the first time speaking to them in 2 weeks. I half expected them to cry and be upset. Instead they spoke calmly and both sounded really mature and grown up.
We arrived back in Cape Town about 2 hours later, and I virtually ran through customs to get out to see them. Sadly due to a mix up and oversleeping, our friend did not fetch us as planned, and no one was there at all! That was the last straw for me, and I burst into tears. Richard quickly got a taxi to take us home, and 30 minutes later there we were. The boys greeted us calmly and happily and were more keen to tell us about their adventures than hear anything about us... they did want their presents though!

So that was our trip. I'm now working hard, and hoping to be able to save enough money to go again, and hopefully take the children along with us next time.

Saturday, 1 May 2004

Amazing Thailand: Part 7 - Back in Phuket

So as you'll recall the last episode saw us returning from Bangkok and Ayutthaya and arriving back to the luxury of our Phuket Hotel, where we had another 5 nights.

It was nice to suddenly be without a schedule, we decided just to take it easy the next day, and not have any specific destination or activity. After our sumptuous buffet breakfast we strolled down to the beach and had a swim in the warm water. Cape Town would be so much nicer if our water was warmer. I really battle to take the plunge and swim here. The water is almost too warm in Thailand, but the swim was divine.

The rest of the morning I wondered around the local area and the shops specifically, while Richard relaxed in the hotel room. We then went down to a travel company and booked an island trip for the next day, and made arrangements to hire a motorbike for the day after that. By late afternoon I had also negotiated a deal for a massage so the 2 of us trotted down to one of the nearby Massage shops and had side-by-side Thai massages. A full hour of bliss! Costing Bt200 (R34) each with a bottle of water.

Some people complain that they find the Thai massage painful, but I thought it was wonderful. They do manipulate you a fair amount, and I imagine if you are not flexible it could hurt, but after 6 years of yoga it was simply wonderful. I'd love to have one every day! When that was done we lay contentedly, before floating off for a relaxed evening meal, at the bungalows outside our hotel.

The next day after breakfast, we were collected for our island trip. We were taken to Chalong Pier, where we boarded our Speedboat for Raya Island. The journey was fast and exciting. Raya Island is close enough to not take hours to get to, but far enough away that you are not right near the main land. The trip takes 30-40 minutes, we stopped at Coral Island on the way to drop some people there, and though cheaper, it looked a bit small and sparse. On arrival at Raya we knew we'd made the right choice. Raya is exactly you image of what a tropical island would be. Crystal clear warm water and squeaky clean white sand. A small beach with a few deck chairs and umbrellas, one or 2 other people, palm trees, and cute little bungalows hidden in the foliage. It was beautiful.

We were told we had an hour to relax and swim before going of on the snorkelling excursion. We were also served a platter of beautifully presented fruit, which our guide had sat and cut up on the beach. Again everything has attention to detail. Food is never just plonked down. It's always visually pleasing and creatively served, as well as being delicious to eat!

So we were all set in our swimming gear, and back on our boat ready to go around the back of the island to the coral cove for snorkelling. Which was something I had never done before (unless splashing around and half choking to death in a Port Shepston lagoon at 7 years old counts). On the way around the island we spotted 4 or 5 dolphins frolicking in the water. Unfortunately as we got close they shied away, and apart from one or 2 glimpses they were gone... it was very exciting though. The boat stopped at Raya Cove and we were all given goggles and snorkels, which we fitted and then leapt in and it was amazing!

On the other side of the island we had only seen very pastel coloured fish, which while pretty, had very much blended with the colour of the sand. Here in the red and brown coloured coral there were fish of every different size, shape and colour, and the goggles were great. I stayed on the surface, so that I didn't have to get the dynamics of blowing water out of the snorkel figured out, which had not managed before. It's hard to describe just how stunning the underwater life is. I was very keen to touch a fish, and finally did manage to when the said fish decided to taste my outstretched finger and BIT me! Those little teeth were damn sharp, and I was less excited to be swimming amongst all those fish after that. I was a stupid thing for me to have done in retrospect, but it was just a nip and I survived. All to soon our time was up and we were hauled back into the boat to continue our journey around the island, back to the beach where we started.

We were then loaded into a tractor-trailer (there were 6 in our group, the 2 of us and 2 older British couples) and we wound our way over a bumpy dirt road past loads of development to a restaurant in the centre of the island. The amount of development happening there is actually frightening; in a year or two the place will probably be teaming with people. It's a pity. Apparently now you can stay overnight in the small bungalows for Bt700 (R120), whereas a Villa is under development which is set to be rented out at Bt17000 (R2834) per night! WOW. Presumably the villa will sleep 4-6 people and be staffed, but still the contrast is immense.

As we arrived under the shelter of the restaurant it started raining. It was actually lovely as it became quite cool, and was perfect. I day of swimming in full sunshine would have been bit much for me and my fair skin. The lunch was delicious and we were given about 4 different Thai dishes to share, and a soup each, and rice and noodles, and sliced fruit after. We ate far too much, but it was delicious. Strangely the British couples were amazed that I could eat with chopsticks and were pointing and staring. At first I thought they were commenting on the amount of food on my plate, until I realised that they in fact wee thinking how 'clever' I was too be eating with chopsticks. Weird, I though most people could. Quinn can more or less eat with them already at 4 years old.

We finished the afternoon wondering around the beach, lying on the deck chairs and swimming, until we were told we had to go back again. We would happily have stayed there forever, and were very sad that they day was over. It was a wonderful experience, even though I hadn't been that excited about it at first, an island snorkelling trip is very recommended.

That evening we took a long walk down our beach and ended up finding an interesting night market, and there we discovered a vendor selling fried bugs! There were big white worms, huge cockroaches, locusts, beetles etc etc, and people were buying and eating them! It was like Fear Factor challenge. Unfortunately I didn't have my camera with me, and although we looked again the next night it was nowhere to be found. I think it may be a once a week market. I declined to taste them!

The following day we rented a motorbike after breakfast, and after a few test rides, to make sure he remembered Richard picked me up, and off we went! It was drizzling on and off so we had to be careful, but we decided to make the trip inland to Phuket town, to see what it was like. On the way we stopped at another elephant trekking spot, because I wanted to feed the elephants again. There were also Gibbon monkeys ate this spot. They are SO cute. They are tailless, and have long fluffy arms and legs and are either black or light brown. They have really expressive faces. I enjoyed touching them and interacting with them. It's hard not to encourage them, even though they are meant to stay wild, because they are so tame, and so curious too.

We then carried on to Phuket town, which was surprisingly far away. With the roads being slightly wet, and Richard's sense of direction being less than brilliant I was doing a lot of back seat driving. After finally following my directions we found the town and then the Cashew Nut factory we were looking for. Here workers were churning out loads and loads of cashews. A Japanese tour bus arrived at the same time we did, and they were swarming all over. They rushed to the shop and couldn't get enough of the cashews, they were literally sending thousands of Baht each. I must be way cheaper than their Japan cashew's price.

We looked around the shop, and tasted quite a few, as every variant was available for tasting in several places, and the shop assistants kept shoving them at me. They were nice, but not all the flavour combinations worked. We eventually bought a few packs of plain nuts, but found that they weren't all that cheap compared with home.

We went on to a big covered market. I found a coconut stand and ordered on to drink. For Bt10 (R1.50) I got a whole coconut, with the top chopped off, and a straw. The juice inside has a subtle sweet taste and was very nice and cool to drink. Yum. We also found a pile of pomelos (like large grapefruits) in the fruit section. There were pomelos there the size of my head!

The rest of Phuket town was dirty and dingy compared to the beach areas, and with the rain there wasn't much to see or do, so we decided to head back via Patong Beach.
I had a prearranged appointment for 7pm, so by later afternoon we decided to push through back to Karon instead of spending the evening in Patong.

Next: what was my appointment for?

Friday, 30 April 2004

Amazing Thailand : Part 6 - Durian ' the king of fruits', and the night in Ayutthaya

As promised, my Durian tasting.

So after our night market meal and drinks with the British travellers, and Ray's tales of his experience with Durian, I was determined to at least TRY it. I'd seen it featured on Ripley's believe it or not for being the most foul smelling thing on earth, so I was duly cautious. The Brits went off in the direction of Tony's Place leaving us to hunt down this notorious fruit.

I was acutely aware however that we'd actually seen Durian's on sale virtually everyday and I had not noticed any particularly vile smell at any time. So off I went to a nearby Durian vendor and started indicating that, No I certainly didn't want to buy a whole one. I asked to smell it. The lady cut a v shaped nick in the flesh and folded it down, revealing the pale yellow nutty looking flesh inside. I smelled it, and to be honest didn't smell much. What I then realised is that the smell I HAD been smelling all the time thinking it was just general fruit market smell with some over-ripe and possibly rotten fruit added in IS the smell of Durian. So basically it smells like a combination of any fruit you can imagine all combined and left out too long. It's not putrid at all, just very complex and aromatic. To me it has a strong element of Papaya to it too.

So although I had been warned that I might heave and even vomit on eating it I wanted to try some anyway. I gestured to the lady that I wanted just a *small* piece. Meaning a pea sized piece, she nodded and grinned gleefully and cut out a piece about the size of a large dried pear. She declined any payment, she just seemed oddly thrilled that I was going to try it.

I braced myself and bite off a small nibble. Expecting time to stop, or hallucinations to start or some such. But I found it fairly easy to palate. I took another bite and slowly chewed tasted and swallowed. I smiled, the Durian vendor beamed delightedly, and we walked on.

The best way to describe this fruit to me is very complex. It's very fruity, but does not have one specific taste, it does taste like a blend of all sorts of things, butter, nuts, melon, paw-paw, mango etc etc. It taste like everything and nothing all at the same time. It's actually quite mild, and is not pungent, but the flavour is incredibly detailed.
It was certainly edible and fairly easily edible. Did I actually like it? Well. No not really- but I didn't hate it. I was actually half disappointed at how easy it was to eat though. Richard who is often less amenable to trying new weird and wonderful things than I am even had a nibble and agreed that he also didn't *like* it, but it's not that bad. I kept at it bravely until at least 3/4 of the piece were eaten, and then decided I had had enough, and feeling very guilty I threw the rest behind a tree.

Having actually tasted Durian however, and now knowing what that smell was, we did feel more repelled by it after that. Did you know that Durian is banned in a lot of indoor venues, hotels and on transportation? Because the smell is so strong and permeating and once in an air-conditioning system it is hard to remove.
"In Singapore the fruit is widely consumed, yet banned on public transportation. This past January, durian made the news when a Virgin Blue flight from Brisbane, Australia was delayed because of the overwhelming smell of the fruit coming from the cargo hold. Virgin Blue boss, Brett Godfrey was reported saying, "This wasn't a safety issue, this was a gross issue -no one wants to fly in a plane that smells like that.""
I have been wondering about the fact that the experience was easy for me and yet other people claim it as an almost near death experience, I found a similar description to mine by a girl on the internet: "People are fascinated by paradoxes, and I am no exception. How can a fruit smell like compost, yet taste heavenly? How can a fruit that is pollinated by bats and has a thorny exterior, have such an enthusiastic even worshipping fan base? There are many accounts of durian experiences from the nauseating to the sublime. However, what draws me to a discussion of the durian is precisely the fact that I have never delighted in its taste nor been repelled by its smell. I have never been overwhelmed by it positively nor negatively. "
I guess it's just perceived differently by different people, and I was one who could tolerate it easily, but not necessarily like it. So there you have it...

After our Durian dessert we set of back on the walk to Tony's Place and then decide to take a stroll around the town instead. Unlike Phuket and Bangkok, this place was largely deserted and shut down apart from the night market area, which seems to be the hub of night time activity. There were some people sitting and having a drink in a door way to a pub or shop, but there was no real night life to speak of.

We frequently came across dogs, many of which seemed to be partaking in strange sexual antics. It was like dog orgies. Funny, but more than a little disturbing! Being somewhat afraid of dogs myself I was not very comfortable when a dog would notice as and aggressively bark and come out menacingly from where it had been hidden with teeth bared. I was very aware that we must have smelled very different to the locals, plus that if one dog went for us, I'm sure another few dozen would follow! My other thought was that there was a distinct possibility that some of these mangy skinny dogs could be rabid. Richard urged me to stay calm and to just keep walking straight and confidently, AND to stop looking them in the eye! Apparently that's an aggressive gesture to a dog, and if you want to be non-threatening you should avert your eyes, and not try to stare them down.

After a much longer walk than anticipated and getting quite lost, and needing to ask some people how to get back, we finally made it back to Tony's Place where the Arsenal/ Tottenham game had just started. The Brits were ardent Arsenal fans and were well settled in for the footy game, they though Arsenal winning the Premiership was a done-deal (it didn't happen though). It was still stiflingly hot and I decided a cold shower and bed were what I needed and I headed off. Even with the shower running on cold water only it was quite warm, and I simply couldn't cool down. This was when I started regretting getting the non-air-conditioned room. I was walk more than asleep that night and was hotter than I remember being during the whole rest of the trip. I was sweating and actually felt like I had a fever. I remember wondering if it was possible that I would die during the night from being over-heated. It was really unpleasant. Even though we went to bed well after 12, as we had become accustomed to, by 6am when the heat of the new day started intensifying I couldn't take it anymore and decided to get up. After another tepid shower, we dressed as light as possible and went out in search of the ruins.

We walked and walked and did find some. Inside a closed gate. We were told by a 'security guard' that the gate only opens at 8am! Damn. He suddenly said he'd open it for us but there's an 'entrance fee of Bt30 each'. It seemed like a con, and the price was higher than the Bangkok temple entrance price, but we gave him Bt30 for both of us, saying it was all the money we had, and he agreed to let us in. The ruins were interesting, but are very much 'ruined', they don't have any of the intricate and ornate detailing of the newer temples we'd seen, and they are made solely out of bricks and cement work. Some sections had sunk right into the ground. The park we were in did not seem that well maintained, and I think there are actually much better sites to visit in Ayutthaya, but we never found them. I think it's advisable to take a guided tour if you really want to see and appreciate the place. Anyway there was some charm and 'spirituality' at being there so early in the day and the light of the rising sun was beautiful.

After leaving this historical park we decided to walk on and see if we could find some more of the postcard depicted sites and places. After a while we found ourselves walking down a quite road. It seems to be heading in the direction of the night market we'd been at the night before, so we continued thinking it would be nice to go there and get something for breakfast. We walked and walked and walked and walked. We found a weird run down temple and cemetery, with bizarre 'pet cemetery' dogs lying about. They were very strange creatures and I was more than a little weary of getting close to them, although they looked half dead and not really capable of much action. By now we really didn't know where we were or where we were going, or how to get there. The road was getting quieter and quieter and more and more rural. We were also tired and hungry and were not enjoying ourselves anymore. We were deliberating whether to walk all the way back the way we had come, or continue, risking just getting further away from town if we were on the wrong route, or take a further detour, but then who knows where we'd end up?!

With patience wearing thin, and still undecided I saw a green pinafored motorbike taxi, and darted in front of him to flag him down. He stopped and we begged him to take us back to civilisation, asking if it was possible for both of us to get onto his little bike. He nodded so we squeezed on and the bike spluttered on. It was quite a long ride, and I am so glad we didn't need to walk it! He took us all the way back to Tony's Place, which I was very happy to see. He then proceeded to try to rip us off and charge a ridiculous price for the ride, I think it was Bt140! We tried haggling but he wasn't happy. I went in to speak to the receptionist and find out what a reasonable price would be, we paid him that, it was about Bt75! Odd that a single bike ride can cost way more than a 1.5hr bus journey, but there you go.

The rest of the day was spent walking around the shops and street markets near Tony's place, especially the air-conditioned 7Eleven. We had some lunch in a food stall alley, where we again bumped into the Brits. After that we went back to Tony's and I had a short sweaty nap on a day bed. Our flight back to Phuket was only at 8pm that night, but by 4pm we were on a bus back to Bangkok's Don Muang airport, where we arrived at 5.30pm. Our main goal was to cool down, and we decided spending a few hours in the airport would be a better way to spend the time before the flight than sweltering miserably back in Ayutthaya.

I'd like to back to Ayutthya one day, because I really don't think we did it justice, but we learned quite a lot there...

The time passed quickly in the airport, where we had a meal. In the surprisingly reasonably priced Thai food-hall we found, as opposed to the other fast-food chain vendors with extra-inflated airport prices. Then we were jetting of back to Phuket. It was great to be back there and it felt like home. We were also ready to be back in the relative luxury of our hotel room. We slept very well that night.

Thursday, 29 April 2004

Amazing Thailand: Part 5 - Chatuchak & Ayutthaya

After our Kao San Road evening and our second night at the Suk11 hostel we packed up all our belongings, and headed off on the Skytrain to Mo Chit Station, which is the end of the line, and also the location of the Chatuchak week-end market. Being a Sunday it was in full swing, and teaming with people.

It was by far the hottest day we had experienced while there (between 43-45 degrees C), and lugging our backpacks around in the congested and tiny isles between the stands became quickly uncomfortable and just downright impractical. Here's description of the extent of the market:

"Though there are many throughout Bangkok, Chatuchak Weekend Market is still pretty much the undisputed king of them all. The scale of it is pretty unbelievable - it covers an area of 35 acres, contains more than 15 000 shops and stalls, has over 200 000 visitors each day, and they spend an estimated total of 30 million baht (approx R5 Million!). The range of products on sale is extensive, and includes household accessories, handicrafts, religious artefacts, art, antiques, live animals (which unfortunately are frequently caged in cruel conditions), books, music, clothes, food, plants and flowers etc..."

In fact pretty much anything you could think of! Having heard this was the BEST place to shop for literally anything I was quite keen, but I found it harder to bargain here than nearly anywhere else, and some vendors refused to budge on there prices at all. Odd. Richard gave up quite early and opted to sit at a food stall with our bags, while I headed off solo and unencumbered to search for the plain vest tops etc that I was after.

Being as huge as it is it's nearly impossible to take it all in, and with the oppressive heat, we soon decided that shopping wasn't really what we wanted to be doing. I was keen to see the pet section though, which is often mentioned, so we found a map and started heading in the right direction. Trying to stay under covered sections and out of the heat of the mid-day sun. We eventually found the pets. I was both fascinated and saddened slightly as there were dozens and dozens of stalls with hundreds of tiny fluffy bunnies and chipmunks stacked in cages not much bigger than they were. They were clearly over heated and not comfortable and seeing 2 tiny rabbits crammed into their small water bowl in a feeble attempt to cool themselves was quite heartbreaking. They were all oscillating rapidly and unison as they panted. It was unclear if these animals were really meant as pets of food, but I think they are pets. Strangely the dogs were treated very well and mostly had air-conditioned stalls with glass sliding doors. We became very interested in the dogs, when we realised we could also be air-conditioned while 'admiring' them ;)

Eventually we couldn't take the heat and heavy bags anymore so we decided to leave. Easier said than done, as by now we had wondered right into the middle of the market. We bravely fought our way through several thousand thronging shoppers and made our way to the exit. Note this place is not recommended if you are claustrophobic! I marvelled at one man I saw on crutches and with only one leg. I have no idea how he managed survive it - presuming he did!

Once we made our way onto the street we started focusing on finding a bus to Ayutthaya. Only problem was there were NO signs in English anywhere and no one we spoke to could speak English either. Loads of buses were passing but we didn't know where they were going to, or even how to go about catching them, or how and where to get a ticket. We also soon realised that saying 'A-yu-tay-ya' was not correct or understood, and were told by a policeman that it's 'a-u-ta-yaaa', with the focus on the last long 'yaaa'. After probably half an hour or more of bumbling around we decided to accost the next bus that stopped. It turns out there is no bus station, you simply stand in the road and hail a passing bus and then get on, if it's the right one! Simple when you know how ;) So we boarded and paid the Bt35 fare each (R5.85), for the 1.5hour journey. Considering it's greyhound type air-conditioned bus, this is amazing. I wish our public transport was that prolific and affordable, you can get from anywhere to anywhere in Thailand for virtually nothing.

We got the fare-taker to assure us that he'd tell us when to get off and we relaxed in the relative coolness. Just as I settled in and was almost asleep, we were told it was time to get off. Which we duly did, under a freeway flyover. We had no idea where we were, or where to go from there. This was probably the most unsettled we felt the whole trip, it didn't help that we were exhausted too, and didn't know where we were staying or anything. I had made no reservations, and hadn't even remembered to print out the list of possible accommodation options. Perhaps the planning was better after all. But I had wanted to do something on the run, ala The Amazing Race... stupid in retrospect. I am too much of an organiser to really enjoy that. *grin*

We saw a shopping centre across the pedestrian bridge, so we made our way there. It's a new centre called 'Ayutthaya Park'. I think it's meant to bring the town into the 21st century, but it hasn't happened yet... No one here spoke English at all, and trying to convey successfully that we wanted to go near the ruins, but more importantly find somewhere to sleep for the night, was just not working. I was pleased that my phrase book was finally really needed, but in the heat of the situation it wasn't actually much help. Although I must say pointing to the Thai text for HOTEL did seem to illicit some response, we're just not sure what... since she couldn't talk back in English!

Anyway we decided to leave the safety of the shopping centre, and found some busses. We got on one, without really knowing where it was going, but at Bt2 each getting anywhere was a bonus. During the trip the lady next to me realised we didn't know what the hell we were doing, and in broken English started trying to figure out what it was we were doing there and what we wanted. Note that we had not seen a single other Westerner since we left the market... She conferred with another passenger and they decided they knew where we should go and would tell us when we were there.

The town itself is not very pretty or scenic and is very old and run down looking. It was the capital city for a long time, and was once the largest city on earth. It doesn't seem like anything has happened there since though. I was quite disappointed as I expected it to be magical.

"Before Bangkok was the Capital of Thailand, formerly called Siam, Ayutthaya was the Capital of the Kingdom. This was in the period between -say- the 14th Century and 1782. The Kingdom of Ayutthaya was very prosperous. It was a Kingdom of 34 reigns, covering about 400 years. The period ended when General Taksin built a new Capital in Thonburi, after Ayutthaya has been destroyed by the Burmese in 1768. Taksin became King, but he was removed by General Chao Phraya Chakri, the later King Rama I in 1782. This King Rama I was the founder of the Chakri dynasty, of which the present King Bhumibol Adulyadej is a descendent. Therefore you might also say that the Ayutthaya period ended with the founding of the Chakri dynasty. "

Sure enough after a while, our lady called to the driver who promptly pulled over and there was 'Tony's Place'! A name I recognised from my list, safely stored on my PC back at work, and there were tourists and westerners. It's silly but I was happy to see even Americans. I think we were just relived that we had found the place we were meant to be, and Ayutthaya wasn't going to be a complete write-off. We thanked our friendly local lady with many a 'Khorb Khun Kaa' (which means Thank-you in Thai), and happily ran into the lush tropical sanctuary of the patio area.

Establishing our respective priorities Richard befriended the motley crew of British tourists and wasted no time ordering a beer, while I attended to the important task of securing accommodation for the night. My shrewd bargaining skills were honed, and along with the news that the Brits had got a stunning room for a tuppence I negotiated a clean double room, with shower for a mere Bt250 (R42)! Ok it was non-air-conditioned, but I didn't think that mattered. I now know it DOES.

After a shower and change I was keen to explore and look for ruins, but Richard was content to socialise with the Brits, so we chatted to them and met a colourful French chap, and an equally odd older Thai man. Both pretty much likable bums, with well established drinking habits. Before long night time had arrived and people started getting hungry. The Thai guy gave us directions to the night time market, with warning to beware of the dogs. Odd. But 5 of us set off in search of the market and food...

Sure enough after rounding the first corner we saw a collection of scary looking dogs. We kept together and walked quickly. They barked but left us mostly alone. We came across several groups of dogs, but managed to avoid any incidents, and I think it helped that we were in a group.

The night market was in a open lot along the river. Prettily lit up with lights. Locals were busy shopping and eating, and generally socialising in the market.

The food here was very much by locals for locals and some things looked a bit odd, but the regular fired noodle dishes were available too. Our new British friends had travel a fair amount and had sampled most things, so recommended the Thai chicken noodle soup, which did turn out to be simple but very tasty. We also tried some chicken satays with peanut chilly sauce. Very yum.

After the meal I sampled a fruit shake, I had a big glass filled with a delicious blend of Pineapple, evaporated milk and crushed ice, costing only Bt10 (R1.66). You can select a range of fruits, syrups or even jelly type sweets to make your shake out of. Most people in Thailand don't buy a can of coke, they'll buy a small plastic packet with handles filled with crushed ice with coke (or the drink of their choice poured over it) and with a strew stuck in the top. It looks quite strange at first, but after a while it makes a lot of sense. You see people with their ice drink hanging off their bike handle bars etc. Crushed ice is big commodity there.

Eating is a very social thing there, and with the food being so cheap, even in Thai terms, and freely available virtually everyone eats food from vendors. In fact apparently in Bangkok most apartments don't even have kitchens. Watching the vendors chop and prepare the food is amazing, they are very skilled, and all dished are served to look nice, with pretty garnishing. The food is simple but incredibly tasty and with strong but complimenting flavours. Limejuice is used a lot, for instance.

Having heard so much about the much maligned Durian fruit, I was determined to taste it.

Here's some of what's said about it:


Q: What fruit is shaped like a hedgehog and smells like compost?

A: Durian.

Durian, the infamous tropical fruit, banned in hotels and public transportation because of its foul odour, but craved by many who have become accustomed to it. "Like eating custard in a sewer."

Imagine the best, most delicious, and sensuous banana pudding you can imagine, add just a touch of butterscotch, vanilla, peach, pineapple, strawberry, and almond flavours, and a surprising twist of - garlic??!! Like many of life’s greatest experiences, eating durian cannot be adequately described with words. Durian has a characteristic delicious flavour, creamy texture, and tantalizing fragrance that is just... durian! - the king of fruits, Nature’s most magnificent fruit gift.

The durian "dilemma"

  • On one hand ...

  • "Durian (--n.) : The fruit of the DURIAN, having a hard, prickly rind and soft pulp with an offensive odour"

  • "Some people would rather die than to smell the STINK of a durian."

  • "Like eating custard in a sewer."

  • "Overripe cheese, rotting fish,..."

  • The smell from hell, the taste from heaven."

  • On the other hand!!

  • "Give me durian or give me death."

  • "... the pale yellow flesh had an appealingly creamy, custard like texture and a very sweet taste."

  • "Durian, the infamous tropical fruit, banned in hotels and public transportation because of its foul odour, but craved by many who have become accustomed to it. "

My experience and impression of Durian next!

Wednesday, 28 April 2004

Amazing Thailand : Part 4 - 'One night in Bangkok'

The song goes: " One night in Bangkok and the world's your oyster, The bars are temples but the pearls ain't free. You'll find a god in every golden cloister, And if you're lucky then the god's a she I can feel an angel sliding up to me "
After our first Skytrain transit we easily found Patpong Street, the center of Bangkok's 'Naughty Nightlife' District. There's a night market trading all along the street, where all the regular vendor wares can be bought. Here vendors also hold discreet folders displaying their sex DVD titles, which they flick open as you walk past. One tried to entice us by saying ' I have sex DVD filmed in SOUTH AFRICA!'. That makes it special in some way....?

The go-go bar touts are everywhere, and you can't walk more than a few steps without being approached by a few holding up small laminated menu cards, advertising the shows on offer. 'Ping pong sex show, Banana Sex show, Open Coke Bottle Sex Show' etc. It's quite amusing actually. After hearing and reading so much about these, we knew we had to see it first hand, so we selected the Queen's Palace II, after negotiating the terms with the relevant tout. There's no entrance fee, but you have to buy at least one drink each, and surprisingly the drinks there are charged at the regular price of Bt50 for a Singha Beer (R8.40). Some places are known to charge magnitudes more. Maybe that's why this place has a better reputation than many others.

So in we went, wide-eyed in anticipation. The place was fairly cozy, with a boxing ring type design, with patrons seated around the walls, facing into a central raised oblong stage with a pole on each corner. The place was full of naked and near naked women. All wearing high-heeled thigh-high black boots. Some wearing a bikini or part of one, a few not wearing anything. They were all local Thai girls ranging from young and beautiful with gorgeous bodies, to some fairly old and dumpy. We were also convinced that some of them were katoeys. I think being a couple allowed us to sit and observe on the sideline without drawing much attention. The single men seemed to be targeted a fair amount. The girls would sidle up to them and ask to be bought a drink etc, and you sometimes see a man sitting with one or more girls, getting lots of adulation.

***Warning - don't read the next few paragraphs if you are sensitive, or offended by sexuality***
One the stage there would always be 6-8 girls dancing and preening to the music supplied by the house DJ. These girls seemed mostly quite shy, and rather than putting on bold aggressive acts, seemed to be giggly and a bit shy and mostly interacted with each other - sometimes dancing together too. The nudity quickly became blasé and seemed very natural. It was also nice that these were natural real girls and not all perfect pin up models. Although some WERE gorgeous. Every 15 minutes or so, the DJ would ring a bell, and the naked girl who would have appeared on stage just before would begin her act. Each girl had her specialty. The first girl danced a little, and then produced a piece of ribbon, which she proceeded to pull out of herself over the next few minutes. Eventually she had about 10 meters of neon coloured ribbon trailing out of her! I found this bizarre, rather than erotic. It's also interesting to note that the girls seems to find it a bit absurd as well, although they seem to find it all in good fun too. Once the entire ribbon was revealed, the girl disappeared off stage and into the back. The dancers would then also leave the stage and mingle with the crowd, making way for the next 6-8 to take the lime light for a while. After another 15 minutes the DJ would again alert everybody for the next act.

Following acts included:
- Shooting ping-pong balls across the room - to be caught by another girl with a net
- Opening a bottle of shaken soda water with a bottle opener.
- Shooting banana past the audience and into the wall
- Blowing a horn
- Drawing a picture, by 'gripping' a felt tipped pen
- Those were the ordinary ones, then there was:
- Popping balloons with blow darts!
- Pouring half a bottle of water in, and then producing 'coke' to fill a empty bottle with (that' must be achieved using colour crystals or something!)
- Inserting a tomato and producing tomato pulp out of it!

It's amazing, and just a little frightening to see what they can do! After a while it becomes fairly routine, as there are only so many variations on a theme.

So several beers later, and feeling like I need to practise my kegels a lot more... ;) We left to see what else we could find.
We soon came across a banana fritter vendor, and since that was on MY list to sample, I handed over my Bt10 (R1.70) for a packet of deliciously oily banana fritters. Yummy. The banana actually had very little taste (I think cooking plantains are used) but the batter is lovely, and strangely the overall taste was more like apple crumble than anything else.

While I munched away, we ambled down another bustling neon lit alley, and came upon more touts, but the flavour here seemed different. More professional, more organised, more classy or something. It turned out that we were in gay show territory. None-the-less the touts were keen to get us to enter the shows. On enquiry we found that at these place the condition is also to purchase at least one drink each, but here a beer cost Bt250. We decided not to bother as it was late. Being close to 12am though and closet o closing time, they were in the mood for bargaining though, so the last club offered us entry, with 1 drink to share at Bt150, so we agreed in the spirit of adventure and new horizons.

I must say this show was very slick and professional and the boys were stunningly gorgeous!
The stage was also slightly raised, but here the audience all sit in rows in front of the stage. When we arrived a fire juggling display was just finishing. The next event was 3 guys, wearing nothing buy white hot pants and slathered in shaving cream, undulating and slithering very seductively. After a while they turned on an overhead shower and continued under the cascading water. At one point they all got shaving cream in their eyes - which I found quite amusing, as they suddenly rushed under the shower and tried to rinse it off quickly, forgetting to be alluring for a short while. This was followed by a swimming display. A curtain open to reveal a fish tank-like swimming pool. Where several men took turns to swim. I likened it to a lobster tank at a restaurant, where you can view and select the lobster of your choice.
Interestingly once each act was finished the guys would wash-up and appear in fresh white and tight hot pants and vest, with a numbered badge pinned to their chest. They would then sit on a bench next to the stage. I'm sure that's to make the selection and order process easier later ;)

The final act was a drag show - similar to the Pricilla Queen of the Desert, cabaret style. A man appeared wearing full traditional Thai female garb and with a fully painted face, except the make up was all skew and distorted. 'She' had 2 semi-naked male aides, waving palm fronds. All very regal. A traditional Thai song started, with the theme of 'welcome to Thailand, the land of smiles'. Then what started as the usual drag show with lip synched song became a satire act. The song started warping, going faster and slower, and scratching and stretching, and would then return to normal. They were illustrating the contrast and conflict between the beauty and innocence and splendour of Thailand and it's culture, and the deviant darker underbelly of the sex tourism industry and katoeys and such like. It was brilliantly put together, and was both very amusing to watch and very thought provoking as well.

We got back to Suk11 at around 2am. Passing 'Charlie's Bar' just outside, with a sign displayed which caught our eye. ' Now available - ladies toilet. For piss only, no shit please' !!! *hehehe*

*** Ok that's the nightlife over, should be safe again from here***

For some reason you don't get tired there, or very hungry. Perhaps both are attributable to the heat. We quickly adopted the local style of waking at around 9am, and going to bed at 2am.

The next day was Bangkok sightseeing day.
We headed to the river, via sky train. After getting off at the correct station we wondered up a road and then caught a bus to find China Town. We found a lovely colourful Chinese temple. Everything there is very bright. I was wondering how it stays that way, as everything in SA fades in the sun. Either the sun is not as harsh there, or they have better paint, or they touch up often...

We went past funny quaint shops. A chemist, followed by a greasy engine repair shop, followed by a Chinese food shop, with whole roast ducks - head and all, hanging up. This section did stink as the drains were being cleared and there were piles of back sludge lying down the length of the road. Still people sat and ate right next to them!
We kept walking till we decided we'd seen enough of china town and odd types of food, and ventured on to find the river. We had got slightly disoriented, so asked a local where the river was. Non compredo. After several tries the penny dropped, and he exclaimed ' oh, the LIVER'. After which we were given the correct directions.
The R thing is a real problem there. They actually don't understand if you as for rice either, you need to say LICE.
We even saw a printed sign advertising 'Liver Rafting'.

Once we found the river we boarded a river taxi and headed up to Wat Arun.
Wat Arun is a big temple on the riverbanks of the Chao Praya River. The scale and detail is absolutely amazing. The original temple was built in the old cemented style, and King Rama III had the temple decorated with porcelain. There are whole plates and shaped ceramic pieces following detailed patterns repeating probably thousands of times over the thing. It's incredible to see.

After Wat Arun we crossed the River and walked on to Wat Pho, ignoring the Tuk-tuk drivers who tired their best to tell us it was closed, and we should rather go to the special 'Lucky Buddha’, which is open 'today only'. Wat Pho was of course open, and FYI there is no temple of the Lucky Buddha. Incidentally if you are caught by these people it seems that all that happens is you waste a lot of time being taken to shops, tailors and jewellers where you are enticed into buying things you didn't want for more than you wanted to pay. They work in groups so you can get one guys story substantiated by the next until you believe them, but they are just con artists.

“Wat Pho covers 20 acres, and includes the famous Reclining Buddha. "The highly impressive gold plated reclining Buddha is 46 meters long and 15 meters high, and is designed to illustrate the passing of the Buddha into nirvana. The feet and the eyes are engraved with mother-of-pearl decoration, and the feet also show the 108 auspicious characteristics of the true Buddha. "

We spent a lot of time wondering in this extensive temple compound, and apart from the reclining Buddha which I found very awe inspiring, I loved all the cement figurines scattered around the gardens, and took lots of photos of these.

By the time we had finished there, we realised it was already nearly 5pm, and we had missed the Grand Palace! We were quite 'templed out' by then though, and it's only now that I feel quite a bit of disappointment about it. I shall have to go back :)

Instead we walked to a nearby large field near the Victory monument and watched a kite festival. Many Thai families had come out to buy and fly kites in the sunset. Very pretty. We bought a small kite for each of the boys there.

Then after hearing so much about Kao San Road, and realising we were pretty close we made our way there.
For a road that is SO notorious, it is really hard to find, and not very impressive.
I think everyone who goes to Bangkok has heard of it, it's the first street mentioned when asking about accommodation in Bangkok. It's considered a back-packer's Mecca.
It's also offered referred to as the 'gateway to SE Asia', and every single taxi driver in Bangkok reportedly knows where it is. Incidentally it is also where Leonardo De Caprio's character was staying in 'The Beach' while he was in Bangkok. A lot of people are very disparaging about it now, claiming that it's a hippie hangout and where drop-outs loiter, not daring to try anything else, and then claiming to have 'done Bangkok'. It's also apparently a place where hair braiding, cheap trinkets, tattooing, fake IDS and degrees and general knock-off good are a dime a dozen. So good or bad I wanted to SEE it.

As mentioned it's damn hard to find. In fact we only found it by spotting and following several sets of 'Farangs' (What Thai's call westerners -we speculate it's from the word foreign) walking to and from that area. Amazingly the street is only some 200 m long. But that 200m is filled with pure energy. It bustles with VIBE.
It's like a carnival. People are eating, drinking, getting their hair braided, dread locked, hair extensions, henna tattoos, buying cheap clothes, cds, DVS, you name it, and DRINKING. There was a greater concentration of 'farangs' here than anywhere else, and I actually didn't like it that much. Yes it's fun, but I agree with the critics who say it's not really Thailand. But hey it is what it is, and we took it as such.

I found and bought a lovely blue skirt and top set, both for Bt300 (R50). I had previously seen the same stuff at a flea market in SA for R90 for each. We sat and drank beer at a pavement cafe and watched the activity on the street. On leaving, we again wanted to try a tuk-tuk, but here too they were disproportionately expensive, and one claimed the cost was 50USD! Chancers. Fortuitously we bumped into a seasoned kiwi tourist who knew how to 'tune' them, so we soon found ourselves sharing an air-conditioned taxi for a fraction of the original price, ending another adventure filled day.

Next: Chatuchuk week-end market and Ayutthaya

Tuesday, 27 April 2004

Amazing Thailand: Part 3 – The Mega-city of Bangkok

After 2 nights in Phuket we packed a small bag and headed back to Phuket airport to see Bangkok!
Our original idea had been to catch a bus to Bangkok, but after finding out that while cheap, this takes some 15 hours each way, we quickly abandoned that idea. Instead, I searched the Internet and found a new no-frills airline called Air Asia, and managed to get 2 return flights for less than the price of one on any of the other airlines I had checked out. Bargain!

It was exciting looking out of the plane window and seeing the interior of Thailand, a country which I was already feeling very fond of. We saw farm lands and rice paddies stretching way into the horizon, all very green and with no shortage of water around. On approaching Bangkok the view changed to urban sprawl, with roads and buildings emanating everywhere. The city is huge, and has an estimated population of around 8 Million at the moment. The Chao Praya River is wide and lazily winds it's way through the centre of the city and onwards to the nearby sea in the Gulf of Thailand. For some reason I was very excited to be in Bangkok - I think the city radiates energy. People in Phuket had incredulously asked us why we were bothering to go to Bangkok. I think it's similar to the Cape Town - Johannesburg debate. Some people just love a vibrant busy city. I was certainly keen to at least see it, even if we ended up not liking it much...

I had researched a lot on the internet before our trip, and had learned a few Thai phrases, and even put together a booklet of common phrases, listing words in English, phonetic Thai, and actual Thai font. So I could attempt to say a few words, and if necessary point them out to locals to get understood. The Thai language is difficult for English speaking people to master, as it is very tonal. The same word can be said 5 different ways, and have 5 distinct different meanings! So you really have to be careful. The tones are: low, middle high, rising and falling. Luckily the Internet has some good interactive sites where you can play recordings of some common words to get an idea of how it all works. The written language is just so very different to our own that without committing to learning it, I think it's impossible for us to even vaguely understand. It's largely based on squarish symbols, with various embellishments around them.

I had been expecting a language barrier from the start, but up to that point in the trip and managed to get by easily, with most people in Phuket speaking reasonable English. However this wasn't the case in Bangkok, where it is not uncommon at all for people to have little to no understanding of English at all. Luckily in my trip preparation I had a print out in Thai and English of exactly how to find our hostel accommodation, and detailed instructions for either taxi or bus routes. We opted for the bus, and soon enough Airport bus 2 arrived and we climbed aboard. We sat and watched in fascination was we headed through the city. We passed building after building, and were struck by the dichotomy between large buildings and skyscrapers and the multitude of interspersed shanty dwellings. It makes the place very colourful and real. The shanties are generally quite higgledy-piggledy, but have such character and charm.

The building architecture in SE Asia is spectacular, as a lot of attention to detail seems to be given to shape and form. Buildings are never just plain monoliths, and while they are often large spectacular, they all seem to have an overriding sense of style and elegance. Everything is finished off with nice lines, which are pleasing to the eye. A range of very varying styles are used, so it's difficult to convey, sometimes a stylised Chinese roof line will be used, sometimes a simple taper, the overall result is beautiful harmony.

Our bus deposited us on Sukumvit Road, under the Sky Train's 'Nana' Station.
We were slightly overwhelmed by the magnitude of Bangkok, but with notes in hand we walked the 2 blocks or so and found our oasis, behind a 7Eleven off Soi 11, a little place called Suk 11. Suk 11 is possibly the most charming and character place I have ever stayed in. It is styled on the old shanty buildings, which we had found so endearing on our ride through the city, and is quite vast and ambling. It's big and has grown organically to overtake most of the small crescent road it nestles in. It occupies the 3 top floors of the building lining the crescent, and the walls, which used to separated the separate apartments have been roughly knocked through to create a quaint passageway along the entire building. This style is often emulated in modern designer studio buildings, but this is the original concept! There are little hidden wonders all over and the place is decorated again organically. On venturing upstairs we found an exquisite roof garden, which looked like a 'Garden & Home', or Top Billing shoot location.

The amazing thing is that a double en-suite room, with breakfast only cost Bt600 (for both of us). That's R100!
The entire place operates on a trust basis. You get 2 bottles of drinking water per day, included in the price, plus you get coffee etc with breakfast. There is a fridge with water, soft drinks, beers etc, as well as post card racks, sarongs, shirts etc for sale. If you want any of these things you simply take them, and put money in a moneybox. It would be nice if we could instil that same sense here in SA.

It's amazing that the money and all the goods are just left there, and yet everyone seems to abide by the system and respects it. We found lots of situations like that, where a street vendor will go off for lunch and leave his stall unattended, or at night just cover it with a cloth, and I think it's attributable to the Buddhist culture, and karma. There doesn't seem to be any theft. Well actually apparently there is some in the tourist markets and there are pickpockets operating there. But in our experience Thailand is very big on scams and cons, and price inflating, but not on theft. So a street vendor will attempt to get you to pay an inflated price, but at the end of the day you hand your own money over willingly, they would not steal it from you, and I think there's a marked difference, and the result is that you feel much much safer there, and not physically threatened.

Many people there are after a quick buck, but they'll get it by gaining commission from somebody by convincing you to use a service, or by getting you to sponsor the 'restoration of a temple'. Or negotiating a service with you, and then selling you to someone else at a cheaper cost - this seems to happen a lot with the taxis. I think they have worked out that if they can speak a bit of English, they can get by quite easily just be being shrewd and a bit deceptive. The rule of thumb is don't trust anyone who is overtly friendly with no due cause, or without being asked is suddenly wanting to be really helpful, or tries to tell you the temple you want to see is closed, and they know a better one which is open today only!

Shortly after arriving we decided to sample some street vendor fare. We were off the main roads, and chose the closest one that smelled nice (which was how we ended up selecting nearly all our food). However there was no menu or price in English. We attempted to speak to the lady manning the cart. She clearly had no clue what we were saying. Out came my little book - which still wasn't helping. At this point Richard still wanted to CHOOSE what he wanted to eat. We had to change tactics, as now suddenly here we were in Bangkok, and feeling slightly out of our depth. We crossed the street, where a young smartly dressed girl was ordering food. On enquiry we found that she speaks a few English words, so we asked her to order the same as what she was having for us. This was done. We got our plate of Thai noodles (pad Thai) and pork and perched at the table - which they place literally right on the side of the road. We avoided the water, which the local were scooping out of a bucket and drinking, didn't look very clean at all! The food was delicious, but the car fumes not so much!

I must say I was under the impression that Bangkok would be:
1) Huge beyond belief - it is, but it's easy to get around, so that's not a big problem.
2) Stinky - some people claim there's a stench all over Bangkok, yes there's some drain smell in places, and yes there are lots of intermingled food and garbage smells, but mostly nothing you haven't smelled before though.
3) That the food would make us sick - we were not sick even once, and we ate or drank pretty much anything.
4) The Asian Toilets with hand showers would be a problem, and that there's no toilet paper. I only had to use Asian toilets 2-3 times (thank-you yoga for giving me strong thighs!). But I've had to use them 2-3 times in SA too. Plus there was toilet paper everywhere, and where there wasn't you could buy it outside.
5) Hotter than we could bear. Yes it's HOT. It was 35-43 degrees everyday. But hey we have had temps in the 40s here, and there's far more air-conditioning there. 7Eeleven was one of my favourite shops!
6) That the Traffic jams are endless and continual - I didn't see very much traffic at all. But maybe that's because we were there over the weekend.
7) That we'd see elephants walking in the streets - didn't see one in Bangkok, only Phuket
8) That the pavements are notoriously uneven and walking on them is a nightmare - didn't seem any worse than the pavements back home.
9) That you can't touch tap water anywhere, ever - you can get cheap bottled water for less than R1 and were eventually brushing our teeth using tap water anyway
10) Dirty and polluted - yes in places, but no more so than any other city, and in fact cleaner than some I have seen
11) That no one speaks English - partially true, but if in doubt go into a shop and someone will understand you, and they have 'tourist police' now as well who can help.

So while it does have some aspects of all of those, nothing was that bad, and we found we managed just fine. Perhaps is just the Americans who are xenophobic and can't handle anything slightly different and/or that we have such a diverse and extreme upbringing here in Sa that we can easily adapt to anything, and nothing is THAT different to what we have seen before? I don't know, but while we found it all exciting and stimulating, it was by no means overwhelming or too intimidating.

So we were in Bangkok on Friday night, and the first thing on our list (well the first thing on Richard's list) was to see a Girly-show, aka Sex show, and the place to do that is Patpong Street. So we headed for the Sky train station, quickly figured out where to go and headed off. The Sky train is great. Fast, clean and quite cheap. I am sure Bangkok was far more daunting to traverse before this was built.