Wednesday, 25 January 2012

The Death Railway, Ladyboys and Monkeys - Kanchanaburi, Phetchaburi and Hua Hin - 20-24 May 2011

June 1942, the occupying Empire of Japan instigated the project to build a 258 mile railroad between Bangkok and Rangoon, Burma to support its forces in the Burma campaign.  180,000 Asian and 60,000 Allied prisoners of war were used as forced labourers to construct the rail line.  Thousands of people lost their lives during the remaining years of the war.  It is estimated that over 100,000 people died in the course of constructing the railway due to appalling working and living conditions, malnutrition and torture. 

Stretching out in front of me is the Bridge over River Kwai, which is without a doubt the most iconic remembrance to those that perished and suffered whilst building the railroad.  The bridge sits a kilometre or two from the centre of Kanchanaburi and although it’s been rebuilt, walking over the bridge and remembering those hundreds of thousand people that died is quite something.  There are two museums nearby dedicated to the Thailand-Burma Death Railway which display artefacts retrieved from the period and gives a candid description of how the railway was built at the cost of human life.

Death Railway Memorial
Kanchanaburi is a small city an hour or two west of Bangkok which was easily reached by a surprisingly comfortable, cool and timely minibus journey.  I stopped there for a couple of nights to explore the railway and surrounding area.  I stayed at the Jolly Frog Backpackers where I encountered my first ‘is that a man or a woman?’ quandary as the ladyboy served me my lunch and well needed banana shake.  Ah, those banana shakes have become quite an addiction of mine!  Whilst in Hanoi, I met a Canadian lady who had lived many years as a prominent man, riding motorcycles, having children and generally doing the ‘man’ thing.  She explained to me that she never felt comfortable and was unable to come out and show her true feelings due to the society she was in.  She finally got the courage to express her innermost feelings to her friends and his family, and although it was expectedly a huge shock, they came round to the idea and accepted her for who she was.  Her story was amazing.  She was now travelling with her long friend Brian who is an author and publisher.  She had already been through Thailand and absolutely loved it as they immediately accepted her without question, she stressed that not only did they accept her, they loved her.  She was going to go back to Thailand and get breast implants but explained that she felt too old to have the full genital operation.

Beautiful road through the jungle
I took a motorcycle and explored the surroundings to the city and the amazing countryside.  I headed out of the city in search of the waterfall that is a must visit, however it quickly became apparent that I would not make it at the current speed of my motorcycle.  So I pulled over at some ruins and reassessed my route and decided to head to a nearby lake instead.  Travelling along the main road was not that fun as lorries and cars sped by without care, but once I turned off onto a smaller road, the traffic disappeared and I was allowed to meander at my own pace.  I looked to my left and noticed a massive black cloud overhead and saw that it was raining, so I thought it would be a great idea to become a storm chaser and head straight towards it.  I soon realised that this was not such a great idea as the rain pelted down unforgivingly and made it impossible to see ten feet in front of me.  I took refuge under a tree and waited for the storm to pass before heading on to find the lake. 

Quiet streets of Phetchaburi
The next day, I decided it was time for me to leave and head to Phetchaburi where I had planned to stop and visit for one night.  I found the Ramian Ranong Guesthouse which was tucked beside the incline of a bridge by the river.  It was run by a couple of really friendly people who were there to help and provide you any snacks, drinks or advice on what to do in the city.  I thought the city was a wonderful reflection on an everyday Thai city with very little tourism being shoved in your face.  I walked around for a while and took in the feeling of a working city with the occasional stop in a 7eleven to cook of for a while… that’s when I found Cadbury’s chocolate for the first time on my trip.  I absolutely adore Cadbury’s chocolate and couldn’t resist buying a bar despite the £1 price tag.  I rushed back to my room where I opened up the bar like an excited child and devoured the slightly melting milk chocolate in anticipation of a delightful taste.  All I was confronted with was disappointment…

Phra Nakhon Khiri Historical Park sits on the outskirts of the Phetchaburi and is a collection of palaces, halls and temples situated on top of a hill which overlooks the city and the surrounding countryside.  On my morning walk to the site, I experienced my first violent attack from a local.  As I was walking around the base of the hill searching for an entrance into the park, a cheeky monkey jumped from the ‘Welcome to Phetchaburi’ sign and clung onto my shoulder.  I screamed like a girl, shook off the potential rabies infested animal and ran away with my broken flip flop trailing behind me.  This unprovoked attack set me on edge as I walked around the park which is home to hundreds of monkeys swinging from the trees.  Although the locals seem to have made some kind of deal with them and seemed to be cohabiting without any issues.  The view from atop the hill was spectacular and I spent a while chilling out enjoying the cool breeze before heading back down to the heat of the city.

My next item on my list was Tham Khao Luang, a spectacular cave that houses a reclining Buddha, some images and statues which sit amongst the stalagmites and stalactites.  As soon as I entered the complex, my fears turned back to another potential monkey attack.  It’s like avoiding the classroom bullies.  The entrance to the steps that lead down into the cave was a small gateway which was surrounded by monkeys.  I quickly summed them up and convinced myself that they were not a threat, so just took a deep breath and walked briskly through them and down the steps into the amazing cave.  The sunlight shone through the gap in the cave and produced a strong beam of light which looks like a waterfall falling onto the Buddha below.  The serenity within the cave was overwhelmingly refreshing and if it wasn’t for the tuk-tuk driver waiting for me outside, I could have stayed in there all day just watching the pilgrims offering their gifts to Buddha. 

There was no time to waste now as I made a promise to myself that I wasn’t going to loiter in any one place for a while, so I got on a bus that afternoon to Hua Hin which I thought would be a nice experience as I hadn’t been by the sea since Sihanoukville, Cambodia.  I was, however, thoroughly disappointed and to put it candidly, disgusted.  The city was the first time I had witnessed the onslaught of sleaze that has unfortunately overshadowed a certain part of Thailand.  Old western men paying for their Thai brides and walking around like they are a big deal.  No, I’m sorry this is disgusting and I am appalled that people can use money to pay for love.  Here’s a fact for those men….  They don’t care for you, they care for your money so their families can get food and education.  I couldn’t bear this place for any more than one night as every corner I turned I would see this exploitation and sex trade slapped in your face.  I swiftly booked my onward bus ticket to Ranong on the western Thai coast where I would briefly pop over the border to Myanmar to attain another two week Thai visa. 

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Sala Chalermkrung and the Classical Art of Khon

To celebrate Bangkok’s 150 year, King Rama VII built the Phra Phutayodfah Bridge that links Bangkok and Dhonburi, a statue of King Rama I and also donated more than 9 million baht of his own funds to build the country’s first cinema and interestingly the first air-conditioned cinema in South East Asia.  King Rama VII wanted his subjects to be able to enjoy the most popular cinematic and theatrical performances.  The construction of the Sala Chalermkrung Theatre began in 1930 and opened its doors on 2 July 1933 and has provided that entertainment to Thai people ever since.  It has also become an institute that has trained actors and performers of all natures and has become a legendary venue.

In 2008, King Rama VII celebrated his 60th year on the throne, and to mark the occasion the Sala Chalermkrung Foundation joined hands with the Crown Property Bureau to launch the Sala Chalermkrung Khon project.  The project’s aim was to instil appreciation for the Thai’s traditional culture and art.  Khon is a classical art of Thailand where masked performers enact scenes whilst narrators melodically tell the story.  Where the narrators used to be a necessity as the masked performers couldn’t possibly fill the auditorium with their voices, today they remain more for traditional purposes as wireless microphones could easily be inserted inside the masks for amplification.  The performance used to be for royalty only as it was extraordinarily expensive to produce but with the changing of time, King Rama VII has made this performance available to his people and visitors to Thailand.

The most commonly used script is Ramakien, which is a national epic derived from the Hindu Ramayana.  The Ramayana is an ancient epic which forms an important basis of the Hindu cannon alongside the Mahabharata.  It depicts an idealistic society and duties of relationships between mortals and gods.  The Ramayana spread across India, Nepal and into South East Asia.  Trade and business routes through the area accelerated its influence on foreign cultures which in turn adopted and adapted the story to become their own epics, Thailand’s version is the Ramakien and is apparently still taught in schools today.  Unfortunately many of the original versions of Ramakien were destroyed when Ayutthaya was attacked and razed to the ground by invading Burmese army which marked the end of the Siamese Kingdom.  In the 1790s King Rama I set about creating his own version of the Ramakien which was then adapted by his son, King Rama II who rewrote a selection of verses for the purpose of Khon theatre.

Khon Theatre is interested in retaining tradition and culture, not evolution of an artistic style.  With this in mind, we cannot look at Khon as an end to what Thailand’s theatre has to offer.  Unlike neighbouring, Myanmar, Cambodia, China and disjoined Vietnam, Thailand has a dramatically different political constitution as freedom of speech was introduced during the 1990s.  Although during the recent 2006 Coup D’├ętat which saw the military oust Prime Minister Thaksin from power and exile him, there was a brief period of censorship which affected television, radio and newspapers from reporting any news that may cause social strife during the transitional period.  Interestingly, the removal of censorship is not entirely complete, by law, you are still not allowed to criticise the royal family nor can you insult Buddhism.  Thailand did have a long history of censorship but was increasingly relaxed since the dissolution of absolute monarchy.  With this more democratic constitution, Thai art forms have more freedom to produce innovative performances than their neighbours so long as they avoid royal and religious criticisms.

The performance began with a short documentary produced to inform the audience of what Khon is and how the performers train and prepare for the show.  The performers dress in extravagantly flamboyant costumes full of sequins, golden headdresses that peak a foot above their crowns and intricately decorated masks covering their faces.  The cast multiplies to dozens and the video records their preparation and how they are sewn into their costumes, heaven knows what happens should you need to go to the toilet.  I believe part of their training must focus on the bladder!  It’s magical to see their slow, steady transformation from an ordinary Thai into this mystical character they will characterise for the next hour and half. 

The performers in Khon are highly trained and they practice absolute control over their entire body.   They slowly move with precise and meaningful movements that are choreographed right down to their fingertips.  Khon is a highly physical and symbolic art form where the performers need to adhere to certain movements which express various emotions.  Their movement is mesmerising, extreme control and balance is required as the pace of movement can be fast and then slow.  This reminded me of the work of Eugenio Barba who believed in performers becoming masters of their bodies to enable then to move freely and decisively.  He put his students under gruelling and repetitive exercises where the performer studies each individual muscle within the body, what it does and how to manipulate it to get to where you need to be.  Interestingly, Barba was influenced by Kathakali, an Indian dance-drama form that has a certain amount of similarities to Khon.  It’s fascinating how theatrical cultures transport themselves around the world and merge.

The performance was a colourful display of dance, acrobatics, movement and mime and although there was the issue of a language barrier, the emotive gestures between performers provided more than enough meaning to understand what was happening.  I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and would recommend this performance to anyone who visits Bangkok.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

The Grand Palace, Bangkok - 19-20 May 2011

Grand Palace, Bangkok
“Please can you stop the bus?”  The young Japanese man who was sat next to me on the front row of the minibus pleaded with the driver.  We were just five minutes out of Pai, descending along the winding road back to Chiang Mai and it became all too much for this man’s stomach.  We turned a few more corners as the driver searched for the safest place to pull over.  The Japanese man became impatient and anxiously tapped his knee.  I was concerned that he wasn’t going to hold on until we parked up.  The bus stopped on the side of the road, I promptly opened the side door, quickly swung my legs around out of his way as the man launched himself from the vehicle and expelled his stomach contents on the small patch of grass that encroached the road.

Fantastic detail
The journey down the mountain included multiple vomit stops.  As I said before, this road can make even the strongest stomachs churn as drivers hit the corners as fast as they can.  One stop coincided with another to help out a lady who had come off her motorcycle after slipping on some oil.  The lady was thankfully safe but her oranges were sprawled across the road.  

Following a brief stop in Chiang Mai for some food, I boarded my sleeper bus that would take me Bangkok, my next destination on my trip.  It’s a great feeling to be heading south again as for so long it felt as though I was going back on myself as I travelled up through Laos back towards China.  From now on, it’s straight to Singapore where I will board a flight to Perth, Australia, not that I had booked that flight yet or decided when that may be!

The bus journey was predictably uncomfortable as the VIP sleeper bus turned out to be just a normal coach.  I stared enviously at other buses that pass by with huge reclining seats and wondered when it would be my turn to get a comfortable trip.  This bus, however, didn’t break down… until we were on the outskirts of Bangkok.  The sun was just peaking above ground spreading a red glow over the cityscape.  The bus stopped on the side of the road, however, we didn’t get off the bus for another hour, we didn’t know what was happening but everyone just took the time to sleep for a further hour.  Some people were getting agitated as we were so close and yet so far away.  Some gave up waiting and flagged down taxis.  I waited for some more time until another bus turned up which was going to take us the rest of the way.  This bus was one of those that I desired most.  A comfortable, big chaired bus and I enjoyed it, despite it was only an hour as we weaved our way through the morning traffic.

I found a guesthouse near the infamous Khao San Road with an extremely simple room that comprised a single bed and a fan.  No more was required.  I dumped my bag, had a shower, a little breakfast and headed out for the whistle stop tour of Bangkok.  I made my mind up that I was only going to spend one night here and to move on to Kanchanaburi the next day.

Throne rooms
I had no idea where I was going.  I briefly looked at the Lonely Planet guide and decided to head to the Palace via a short river cruise.  My god was it hot and humid in Bangkok.  I arrived at the magnificent Grand Palace with its amazing golden tipped stupas and temples that glimmer strongly in the sun.  The massive complex was built during the eighteenth century to house the royal residence, throne rooms, government offices and home to the Emerald Buddha.  The present use of the Grand Palace has changed somewhat during the twentieth century as the abolition of absolute monarch gave the government more powers and thus moved out of the complex to separate themselves from royalty.  The royal residence also relocated to a palace across the river where King Rama VII currently resides.  They now use the palace for ceremonial purposes only.

I roamed around the Palace for an hour or so in my long baggy trousers that I had to hire in order to enter in respectable attire.  At each entrance there were ladies handing out bottles of water to visitors as it was terribly hot, especially with trousers on.  The decoration on the temples was astonishingly intricate and beautiful.  Shinning glass reflected coloured beams of sunlight off in many directions and gold stupas rose high into the sky.  I was unfortunate, yet fortunate not to be able to see the Emerald Buddha as there was some sort of religious ceremony going on which filled the hall containing it.  I stood there and watched the proceedings going on, beautiful sounding prayers filled the hall and were played on loudspeakers outside.  Even though I am not religious, there is a magical enchantment to religious ceremonies, the harmonic sound of singing, the passion and sincerity that envelops the speaker’s voice as they preach their religious beliefs.  It really is one hell of a theatrical performance, although to have as much audience participation in the theatre would be a dream.

I wandered further round the palace grounds and visited the throne rooms where I got reprimanded by the guard for taking a sneaky photo.  I did feel slightly bad, although the only reason you can’t take non-flash photos is because they want to sell you a nice little book containing all the photos you could take yourself.  It was the end of a long and very hot day, the Palace was closing up which prodded me to leave for my next destination, the Sala Chalermkrung Theatre.  I left the safe confines of the Grand Palace and thrust myself through the swarm of taxi/tuk tuk drivers that littered the pavements outside the main entrance.  Although I kind of wished I did take them up on the offer as the heat was stifling and I had quite a walk to the theatre. 

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Mahouts and their Elephants, Pai, Thailand - 16-18 May 2011

It's quiet and I'm all alone sitting in the restaurant of the guesthouse enjoying scrambled eggs on toast and a wonderful banana shake whilst waiting for my bus to Pai.  I'm feeling like third of a man as I look to my left and to my right noticing that no Alex Ferguson praising Mancunians are sitting next to me.  A shiver runs up and down my spine and small uncertain bubble pops in my stomach as my mind naturally wonders whether I will meet anyone else along my trip.  It is, of course, a stupid uncertainty as it is highly likely that I will meet more fantastic people along my path. 

A man rushed into the restaurant area with a clipboard and greeted the girl behind reception.  The girl had always been very kind and approachable to me.  She lent me a free towel the previous night and gave me a nice double room for a cut price.  I was beaconed over and introduced to the man whom was going to take me to my bus.  I gently shook the girls hand, thanked her, said farewell and walked down the driveway to the pickup truck.

My wonderful bamboo hut
Choosing the right spot to sit on a minibus is vital, however, when you are last to board you have no choice and unfortunately you tend to get the worst seat.  This time, I was the last to board and yet I found an excellent spot at the back of the bus all to myself.  However, as the bus was travelling around the winding hills and sometimes bumpy road up the mountain to Pai I suddenly realised my bum had probably spent most of its time about two inches above the seat.  There was no resting available as I sat over the wheel and every bump was exaggerated and I would fly up into the air ever few seconds.  I'm not usually travel sick but the journey up to Pai certainly tried its hardest to churn my stomach.   Despite the uncomfortable nature of this journey it was quite humorous. 

Pai's street market
We reached Pai a few hours later and were dropped off in the centre of the town.  My first impressions of Pai were that it was certainly built to accommodate tourists as there were tourist shops selling tours of all sorts everywhere.  My main reason for coming up to Pai was to meet and ride some Elephants.  Alan, whom I had met in Saigon and travelled with into Cambodia, suggested that I stayed in some huts across from the river and gave me a name of where he stayed.  I headed through to the extremity of the town and crossed a rickety bamboo bridge connected the other side of the river and these huts.  I followed the signs, however, there was absolutely nobody around, everything was closed up so I had no choice but to turn around and find alternative accommodation.  On the same side of the river were two more sets of huts and I greeted a man and asked him about his.  We agreed on a price and he showed me to my bamboo hut, fully equipped with ensuite hose, toilet and wifi.  I found it strange to be in a bamboo hut, practically in the middle of nowhere and be able to connect to the internet on my netbook.  The weather was unfortunately dismal and the rain had set in with no sign of stopping.  I opened the hatch to my hut for a while and relaxed watching the rain drench the lush surroundings for an hour or two.  The river that separates me with the rest of Pai runs besides me and I can just hear the trickle of the water quickening in pace as the rain continues to fall. 

My plans for Pai were simply to relax and ride an elephant.  I was now sitting in the passenger seat of a car being driven by a Burmese refugee who was in Thailand to earn a little money for his family who were all in the refugee camp at the border.  He was anxiously awaiting news from the American Embassy that their asylum sponsorship had been granted so he could take is his family to a brand new life. 

Harder than you think...
I soon found myself clambering up an elephant leg, being assisted by the Mahouts that were going to provide my training.  I never really thought about it, but as soon as reached the elephant's summit, it dawned on me how tall these magnificent animals are.  There were three elephants here, all of which have been in the family since they were born and were actually older than the female owner who had inherited them from her father who has long since passed away.  Unfortunately, these may be the last three elephants as they are all female and no feasible males to mate with nearby.

My Elephant, Mahout and me
Whilst I was back in the office in Pai, the lady gave me a little notebook and made me write down several useful instructions that the elephant will understand.  These words would direct the elephant to ‘go’, ‘stop’, ‘left’, ‘right’ and ‘spray!’.  As the rope keeping the elephant from escaping was released, I had to put what I had remembered into practice.  I had a stubborn elephant that didn't really want to listen to any of my instructions.  Luckily I had four experienced mahouts surrounding me and my elephant as we slowly made our way up a path to the rear of the property where I practices getting on and off the elephant.  The Mahouts make it look extremely easy, I suppose practise makes it easier although going to work out on my upper body strength would also help!  You can climb up upon the elephant in a few ways, one by using the elephant’s leg and ear to pull yourself up, and my favourite is by using the trunk and getting virtually launched on top. 

Not sure if this was someone's back garden...
With the first part of my training complete, my Mahout trainer, my elephant and I headed out onto the road to begin my hour long ride through the surrounding countryside.  The elephant picked up a branch and continuously swung it, slapping my legs every now and again.  I was concerned that it was because she hated me but the mahout told me in extremely fragile English that she was beating off the massive mosquitos that kept trying to feast on her blood.  As the journey went on I became more and more concerned for my safety.  I precariously balance on the elephant’s neck as we start going up and down slopes.  I haven’t felt this scared since Hanoi where I rode that motorcycle for the first time.  I always thought that elephants were smooth to touch, but they are actually covered with coarse hair just like a wire brush and after a while you skin on your legs become thoroughly exfoliated. 

The journey culminated at the river where I became the object of entertainment for the Mahout who barked order at me and proceeded to laugh his head off.  I had no idea what he was asking me to do but the elephant was spurting water into my face and throwing me off into the river.  Back at the farm I was given the time to relax in the hot bath where I discovered that I had one massive hole in my swimming shorts from being thrown off into the river.  Despite the fear of falling off, it was an excellent experience which, in retrospection, I thoroughly enjoyed it.  The day ended with a walk to the nearby river where the elephants were allowed to roam freely and graze on the grassy banks as we sat watching them from afar. 

The farm...
It wasn’t until after I bought my bus ticket to Bangkok did I notice that my only other pair of short also had a massive hole in the crotch.  It was time to do a repair job on them!  I’m glad that I wasn’t going commando as the girl selling my ticket may have got a sight she wouldn’t forget.  My short time in Pai, was over.  Unfortunately I had to shoot south as you only get a two week visa in Thailand if you cross the border, so I needed to head across the border into Burma to get another two weeks but first I had several other destinations to visit first.  Pai is a wonderful relaxing place with fresh air and plenty of outdoor activities to keep the most active person going.  I would definitely recommend this place to anyone.