Thursday, July 31, 2014

All change

First my leg was cold, and two days later, my feet - and now, a year and a half on, it's my lap that's cold. Alice was the last to go, hanging on, getting thinner and frailer but still ruling the roost, until today. For more than twenty years she lived here, apparently spurning the advances of anyone else in the family, but always friendly to me (which is not to say that she was an affectionate cat).

So that's another goodbye, at a stage of life that seems full of them. The team has dispersed, the animals no longer of this life, the offspring no longer on these shores: one currently in Peru, the other cycling through France. We will not even be calling this house home for much longer.

But it's not the end of the good stuff, just a change to something different. Next week takes me to the Northern Territory, next month South Africa again, and then the States and Canada. I won't this time have to arrange for someone else to provide the special care that Alice required; but I won't either have her grudgingly pleased to seek me out again on my return, to claim her spot on my lap in the evening and in my bed at night - though Won Ton, the Young Pretender from next door, has already made a move on her territory. Never mind, Alice: it's not your concern any more. RIP.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Read and be thankful

You're not seeing these photos. You may wish you couldn't for real - but please pretend you haven't seen them. I wasn't meant to take them, though I didn't see the sign until afterwards. I could of course have deleted them; but this was such an astonishing place, I wanted to have at least a bit of a record. I took them on my last day in Bangkok at the Museum of Anatomy, at the Siriraj Hospital by the river. It's one of the city's less well-known places of interest. Let's not call it a tourist attraction, because it's really part of the teaching hospital's resources; and as it's upstairs in a hard-to-find building, in a dimly lit room cooled by a series of whirring old fans, the exhibits lined up in glass cases and labelled only in Thai and medical English, it's hardly trying to pull in the foreign visitors.

But it's a grimly fascinating place. Preserved in formaldehyde, dried or stripped are dozens of bodies, many of them twins conjoined in different ways - even one pair sharing an arm but with two hands - as well as skeletons including one over two metres tall and, perhaps less startling but in their way more astonishing, entire teased-out nervous and arterial systems, the threads hanging down from the brain and branching out, in a curiously autumnal fashion. What a feat of painstaking extraction. There are cross-sections through the abdomen at different points, the slabs of muscle and bone looking not unlike something you'd see at the butcher's; and foetuses at all stages of development rather startlingly accompanied by jars of unborn piglets and other unidentifiable animals.

It's truly fascinating - if you're not the squeamish sort - and a real lesson in what a lottery life is, even before it has really begun. There are so many things that can go wrong as our bodies develop, and these were the unlucky ones, born - or not - with horrifying deformities. I understand the rule about photography. They're not a funfair freak show to gawp at for some kind of thrill. They were people, after all; and the babies were wanted, and mourned - they're still treated kindly, gifts of toys and sweets being left beside or on top of their glass cases. And the slogan printed on the unopened box containing a toy helicopter? "Keep Your Dreams Flying". Sad.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

It begins with the people...

This is Suree, who is quite simply the best tour guide I've ever had. She works for Absolutely Fantastic Holidays Ltd here in Thailand, and over the last week has been professional, efficient, knowledgeable, patient, interesting, friendly and funny. She's been an absolute delight, and has added immeasurably to our enjoyment of this trip, which in other hands could have been something of an ordeal, given the programme put together for our media group.

Here she is, embarrassed and grateful at being given our group tip, saluting us and saying "Kop kun kaa" - thank you. After this she went on to say how glad she was to have been able to show us her Thailand, and when she tried to say how much her country needed us, she choked up and couldn't finish. She is so passionate about Thailand, yet realistic too. She didn't try to fudge the issue of the coups and the curfew, and was honest about the car bombing down way down south yesterday that led to an unfortunate juxtaposition on the front page of the newspaper. (Nothing to do with the coup, by the way: it's an unrelated, ongoing independence movement in the border country, instigated by Muslim separatists.)
Suree sees the leaders of the Yellowshirts and Redshirts as ill-disciplined boys, each wanting their own way, who have been held apart by an adult, the military, who is making them talk to each other nicely. She is totally optimistic about the future, and completely confident that tourists are safe here. It's something that's of utmost importance to the country: over the last five years, 50% of the people employed by tourism, one way or another, have lost their jobs; and if the visitors continue to go elsewhere, there could soon be only 10% left in the industry.

From what I've seen this week, she's right. Thailand is safe, it's fascinating, it's beautiful and it's fun. The food and the scenery are spectacular - but what really makes this country is its people, who are always so ready to smile. You should treat yourself, and come here.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Water first and last

Day 6 in Thailand started with a standard and ended with a surprise. Everyone who comes here goes to the markets, and why wouldn't you? Crammed full of cliche, they're colourful, busy, full of new tastes and smells, cheap, cheerful and totally photogenic. This morning it was the new version of the Floating Market. Years ago, this was a floating traffic jam of traders on the river in boats piled high with fruits and vegetables, beloved of tour companies - but then convenience called as more malls and the SkyTrain were built, the actual customers drifted away, and now it doesn't exist in that form any more. There is still a market by the river, though, where the same things are sold from stalls, and a few friendly cooks in boats still cruise the canals, and moor alongside the market where people sit at tables.

It's an authentic place, still mostly frequented by locals, and well worth visiting - as are some of the houses that we were taken to, actual homes of polished teak and airy spaces surrounded by gardens and muddy creeks and canals where turtles, catfish and snakes hang out. There was a lot of snacking along the way, of things like freshly-fried fishcakes, sweet sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves, crunchy guava, pink juice made from flowers. So much food, being prepared and cooked! You wouldn't think there were enough mouths in the country to eat it all - but there's very little waste, at the end of the day.

Speaking of that, after a sadly hurried dinner where we were greeted by traditional dancers, ours finished with a soothingly cooling night cruise along the river to Asiatique. It's a former warehouse converted to shops and stalls, lively and busy, with a theatre where we went to a Muay Thai show. That's kick-boxing to you, not the real thing with blood and bruises, but a slick and stylised version that tells the history of the country and the sport, with a bit of a love story thrown in. Our initial jaded cynicism about cartoon-style sound-effects was soon blown away by the energy and enthusiasm of the young men leaping and tumbling about the stage, and we were all captivated by the performance.

For the 2D version of the market visit, watch Duncan's report.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Getting into the spirit of Thailand

Back in Bangkok, a thousand travel writers and promoters from 34 countries were brought together for the Thailand Happiness festival, starting with some agreeably short speeches from the DG of Thai Tourism and the Commander-in-Chief himself. It's all about reassuring potential tourists that Thailand is safe and welcoming, and eager to greet them. "We are willing to service you forever," in fact, according to the headphone translation. The finale of the ceremony was the popping-up from the audience, 'Love Actually' style, of singers who came together on stage to sing a catchy number.

It did of course help that before all this, there had been a cocktail reception with liberal offerings of alcohol, most notably a drink based on Mekhong, a mysterious spirit which general opinion declared to be rum, but which was light and fruity and eminently drinkable. So after the speeches we were well primed to troop down and out into the street for the start of the party. There were balloons, there was a rain of sparkly confetti, there was a poor excitable drone that collided with the roof over the stage, and there was a parade.

It wasn't a parade in the OTT Malaysian sense, but what it lacked in numbers it made up for in enthusiasm: chefs, dancers, musicians, Miss Thailand... All very jolly and well received by the public standing grinning in the 28-degree darkness. Dispersing afterwards and wandering along the street, the smiles continued, from people manning food stalls, selling clothing, personalising handbags, driving tuk tuks, or just out like me enjoying the vibe.

Moving pictures here.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Thai wine. It's a real thing.

It was another rough day in the travel writing business: wine-tasting at 11am, who would choose to do that? But, conscientious as ever, there I was with the others at the PB Valley winery, slurping and sloshing - though not spitting. Well, there was no bucket supplied, so what else were we to do, but swallow? And it was no penance, as it turned out. Thai wine is not the main topic of conversation wherever oenologists foregather, but actually there's no reason why not, since it's really pretty good. We tasted chenin blanc, rose, shiraz and tempranillo, and it was all eminently drinkable, even before lunch. Don't go looking for it down at the bottle store, though: it goes to Japan mainly; and it's also a bit expensive. Not for us today, though, hooray!

After what was an unsurprisingly jolly lunch at the winery, we were off to an organic mushroom farm where they grow varieties with names like Ear, Angel Wing and Monkey Brain. Presenting us on arrival with a cold mushroom drink that had the consistency of snot wasn't the best marketing move, but it got better. The one that they cooked up for us in a light batter was really very moreish. The mushroom-shaped accommodation and swimming pool were perhaps a little over the top, but there's no faulting their enthusiasm for the fungus, which managed to survive even - presumably - Google Translate in their literature: "We have a good sniff exactly it helps people live longer with healthy." And the eager man who showed us around was a real fun guy. [*cough* Stolen joke.]

Pausing briefly at Palio, a quite bizarre Italianate shopping centre, complete with golden Thai shrine, bronze greyhounds and a shop selling Halloween costumes, we ended the day at a massage parlour. It was an everyday, unpretentious sort of set-up, nothing like the elaborate rituals of hotel spas: a team of small women directed us to battered loungers or mattresses on the floor depending on our wants, and proceeded to knead and poke with hard fingers and thumbs for an hour, or two. There was wincing, there was giggling and there was also, incredibly, given what I perceived to be a barely tolerable level of pain, snoring. But it was cheap, and I walked back to the nearby hotel on fluffed-up feet, to paddle in the infinity pool and gaze out over manicured gardens to the wild hills, which are about to be visited by a multi-billion baht development of hotels, shopping mall and water park.  

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Lots of treats and two disappointments

Most of today was spent sitting - but on a wide variety of vehicles. First there was our usual coach, a fancy big black thing with massage seats that whisked us from Korat along a wide motorway through farmland with rice fields, small herds of water buffalo, little towns lined with shops, fruit stalls piled with durians and mangosteens, and, finally, hills. Here we went first to a pottery village which we toured in a sort of tram. Everyone there is involved in producing and selling all sorts of goods, from huge tasteful garden urns to garishly painted and infectiously smiling figures. We watched one of the former being made, in a dim shed by a man smeared in clay, the pot rising from a lump to a beautiful simple shape in just minutes. As mesmerising now as it ever was in the black and white days of the TV Interlude.

[Speaking of TV, here's a YouTube clip about today posted by Duncan of Duncan's Thai Kitchen. You may glimpse me in the background!]

Then came a silk-weaving village, where we were feted guests, and saw all the work that goes into producing a length of fabric: one barefooted man walks 10km a day, back and forth eight metres turning 120 of the finest threads into weavable thickness. Most of their machinery is so simple, wood and nails and wire, but the looms are something else entirely. I'm full of admiration for their skill.

Next we arrived at our very flash 5-star hotel for two nights - Botanica in Khao Yai, an elegant modern glass affair with views over the lumpy wooded hills. We drove further into them, a long way, to see a waterfall much talked-up by our guide Suree which was, almost inevitably, a bit of a disappointment - big, roaring, a torrent of brown water, sure, and reached by flights of the most astonishingly steep and narrow steps I've ever seen, but no match for Iguassu, naturally. Never mind, it was good to get the exercise. And the huge millipede, and the leeches attached to the specially issued anti-leech socks were something of a sensation.

More genuinely disappointing was not seeing any elephants, especially after driving past the yellow diamond warning sign Danger: Wild Elephants. We went on a night safari on the back of a ute, our plastic macs flapping, the warm rain slanting down in the light from our spotter's torch, but all we found were some barking deer and a big black-tailed squirrel in a tree. No elephants. So we had to make do with the photo taken by the guide just yesterday, right outside the national park headquarters. Sigh.

Dinner at Botanica's restaurant Tempo (curiously, reached via golf cart through the underground car park) was a consolation though, especially dessert: banana, mango, papaya and white chocolate mousse. Yum!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Second city delights

Today we headed north out of Bangkok towards its second city of Korat, along a wide, modern highway past rice fields, a big dam, small busy towns, men watching small herds of Brahman cattle or water buffalo, people sitting at stalls selling fruit and sweetcorn, and some hills - "mountains" according to Suree.

On the far side of the city we visited Khmer ruins at Phimai, a smaller but older version of Angkor Wat, which lies at the other end of a road that starts there. There was some history, of a pre-Thailand, the usual thing of shifting borders and exchanges of power; but mostly we wandered freely around the ancient stone, 1000 years old, carved and weathered, red and white sandstone blackened with age and set off by neat green grass being trimmed by women with big knives.

There was more eating today, of course, first a lunch of crispy fish and duck, with tangy papaya salad and delicious Pad Thai, in an open-sided restaurant where an eager cat flitted around under the table, shamelessly begging. Then tonight we had a succession of interesting dishes laid before us in another unpretentious place of formica and neon strip lights: fresh-tasting varied things frequently unidentifiable, but all hot and crisp and delicious. There were lotus stalks and a spicy peanut mix to wrap inside leaves, more fish and chicken and sweetcorn fritters, soup and rices, salads and noodles. We had all complained about over-feeding as we entered, but there were no complaints once the food started coming, and not much of it left at the end.

Then we went to a night market, which was really good: authentic, non-touristy, non-pushy, relaxed and lively. One side was food stalls, the other clothes, bags, shoes, electronics, a lot of it second-hand, and most of the customers and stall-holders young people, all enjoying the social side of the event as much as the chance to buy or sell. Everyone was friendly and smiling, the night was warm with a pleasant breeze, there was music, live and canned...  I even bought a gold watch, with Thai numbers, since I forgot to bring mine. It cost 100 baht! That's about $3.60. What a lovely way to finish the day.

[If you're interested, Duncan's YouTube post about the day is here.]

Monday, July 21, 2014

Not just the day that was full

A day that begins with waking at 4.30am is always going to be long, but this one was remarkably busy, too. Mainly, it seemed, spent eating. There was breakfast, with a temptingly wide selection at the Sukosol hotel's breakfast buffet (though I was faithful, as ever, to my old love Bircher muesli). Then there was lunch, at Sala, a sleek, shiny modern place directly across the river from the Wat Arun, with glorious fresh and tasty Thai food and an even better sticky rice dessert with coconut cream and fabulously ripe, delicate, yellow mango.

Later there was sampling of mangosteens and rambutans at a market, and guava and rose apple which was neither rose nor apple but tasted just like both together, and then chestnuts. That was all on our way to having dinner in Chinatown, walking past stall after stall cooking and selling bananas, fish, skewers, rice dishes, chicken, duck... We had a Lazy Susan full of different things - pork, chicken, cashew nuts and peanuts, Chinese kale and other greenery, a whole fish, still sizzling, dim sum, several sorts of rice, and Singha beer. Then we had to attend a reception with the hotel owner, a lovely little intense lady (Thai and lively), and management (German and serious) which was canap├ęs then dinner with special dishes beautifully presented, and an international buffet. Augh. They were happy to see the 22 of us, mostly Aussies, since their occupancy rate should be 80% but is currently only 30% because of the coup and the curfew. Neither applies any more, but the media have omitted to do the follow-up to their stories of riots and containment, and government advisories are still in place meaning that travel insurance won't apply - so no-one's coming, and they want us to get the word out.

We've seen no sign of military rule - the closest we got was a ceremonial guard change at the Grand Palace, with lots of slapping and stamping from painfully tightly white-uniformed soldiers. We were dutifully doing Bangkok's sights: palaces, temples, markets, canals, Chinatown. Also getting stuck in traffic, learning that water monitors actually are a monitor of water quality, feeding huge but surprisingly gentle catfish for good luck, and having a really interesting conversation with guide Suree about Buddhism as we sat rather uncomfortably on the floor beneath the Gold Buddha.

Though I had seen most of today's sights before, twice, it was still good to visit them again, and enjoy the colour and detail, the refinement and the squalor, the real and the imagined, and hear the stories and the background. Though - and I'm sorry to seem churlish -  a bit less food would have been preferable.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Travelling hopefully


Here I go, off again. I'm at the airport, slumming it in a coffee shop like the unprivileged masses because - as indicated by the neck pillow stowed on my trusty backpack - I'm travelling economy today, sigh. All it takes is one business class flight to spoil you forever, and I've been lucky to have had many over the last few years, including very recently. Oh well, it's only eleven hours or so to Bangkok, and daylight too, so it shouldn't be too much of a penance.

What's slightly more concerning is that the Sunday papers today are of course full of MH17, with affecting photos of toys and travel books scattered on the ground, and plenty of graphic detail about what it would have been like for those on board when the plane was hit. The last time I was here at the airport - no, the time before (it's been a busy year) - I took a photo of the tails of several aircraft parked outside which included a Malaysian Airlines plane. I smugly noted that I wasn't flying with them, but with Air Tahiti Nui. That was soon after MH370 disappeared - who could possibly have thought that the airline would have another tragedy, let alone so soon?

Perhaps that's why I keep hearing a PA announcement for a passenger who's not gone to the gate to board MH130 - is that a last-minute chickening-out happening there?

I'm flying with Thai Airways today and have no cause for concern but, despite knowing (and being able to see, on various apps) how many aircraft are in flight at any moment of the day, flying safely, it still makes you think as you strap yourself in, what a precarious and unnatural thing it is, to fly.

See you on the other side! I hope.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Air Tahiti Nui - Paris to Auckland, business class

This was the biggest, and pleasantest surprise, on the flight back home with Air Tahiti Nui. Dog on a plane! Who knew? This is Zorro, a long-haired chihuahua, and he was accompanying his doting owner on the sector from Paris (where else?) to Los Angeles (where else?). And no, she didn't have to buy his own seat, it was conveniently empty - it actually cost her only $150, plus rather a lot of paperwork, for him to come along. He was no trouble, spending most of the time inside his padded bag, and many of the other passengers in Business probably didn't know he was there. And yes, I did ask about toileting - she brought a pad for him to use in the loo "But he doesn't like to go when anyone is watching".

The less appealing surprises were that when we did get to LA, we spent the entire hour or so on the ground sitting on a bus, trailing along corridors and up and down stairs, going through immigration, submitting ourselves to the hostile rigours of the US security check, and then getting back on the bus again - all this, despite being in transit. I'm guessing it's because ATN is a small airline and gets shoved to the outskirts of the terminal, without access to a transit lounge like Air New Zealand gets to use. Not their fault, but it sure messes with your enjoyment of the trip.
Similarly, when we got to Papeete, at 4am, for some insane reason we had to queue in the wilting humidity to wait to file past the immigration desk (where one person was working while three others stood behind her, watching) - I tell you, you can get pretty soon sick of listening to jangling ukuleles in those circumstances. Then we had to claim our baggage off the carousel and queue again to check in, to go through security, and to get back on the plane. We spent an hour sweating and shuffling that we could have passed in the airconditioned business lounge eating dinky cubes of Laughing Cow cheese. Why the clerk at Paris wasn't able to check us all the way through to Auckland, I have no idea.

Also, we were unlucky that the two longest sectors were on the older A340-300 plane, Nuku Hiva, with the hard seats, no USB ports and the clunky armrest-TV arrangement. After that, getting onto the smart new Rangiroa for the last bit to Auckland was a real treat. It seems to be the luck of the draw, which one you get.

So, Air Tahiti Nui - would I fly with them again? Probably. The service is friendly and good, and the fares are very competitive (just ask Zorro). They can't help what happens in LA, and surely our Papeete experience was a mistake. They don't compare to Air New Zealand, of course - but then, who does?

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