Monthly Archives: October 2014

Pampered in Samet

   Heading south over the Gulf of Thailand. Its exciting just to be able to say that. From Utapao International Airport which has to be the smallest airport I have ever flown out of, only two fights per day. A motley collection of fellow passengers and sorry to say most of them are sexpats from the fleshpots of Pattaya, with their young girlfriends. Two of them are huge roughnecks from the oil fields of North Dakota who I would not care to meet on a dark night, the girlfriends, tiny. There are a couple of families, two Swiss guys who seem a bit hungover and pale, that’s about it. Me of course, Kinda Blue, after saying bye bye to such a friendly family I am lost for words. 

Notes From A Small Island. (Sorry Bill Bryson)

   You may remember I fell in with a group of people on the ferry over to Samet and we all got together, every day I think. I found a fellow computer/gadget nerd in the Tim from the south of England, we may have bored the pants off the others but tried to geek out only when the others were away. His fiancé, Danielle, or Binnzey, was always bundles of Yorkshire laughs and what would we have done without her to figure out the balances of the dinner check.

   They left for the jungles of the north and it was just five, admittedly one was eight months and another three years, but sure as …… we were five. Luca the Dad, who turned out to be a qualified Doctor, not a med student at all, announced we would rent a scooter, a scooter, not two, just one. After running into the back of a bus with my first born in utero I have a mild fear of two wheeled machines. But he seemed to have the situation under control and, after all, he was a Doctor. He picked me up from my hotel and we sped down to the southern tip of the island where he had dropped off Julie, Mom, and Paulina, eight month old, earlier. A pretty cove with an ok resort, painted villas in multi colors, nice food for lunch, not expensive, nothing is, then some package tour visitors from a small island off the North coast of Europe arrived, we left. Making our way North again I thought Luca was joking, but no, we were all five on the scooter. Amalie kept us all in the right mood, ie fearless, by giggling infectiously every time the driver beeped, which he did frequently. We were quite a sight. There are photos to prove it. We wended (?) our way up the coast, found a French resort, found a Russian resort and found one where we were not allowed to enter, $2,000 per night for the least expensive room and on up from there. How nuts is that. 

   Finally the eight month old (Paulina) announced she was done with such uncomfortable accommodations, so we dropped her off by the side of the road with Julie for a bit of a feed and proceeded to the next resort. Amalie and I were dropped at the gate while Luca went back to retrieve the rest of his family. Walking down the steep hill into the resort it suddenly struck me, ok, this is fine, looking after a three year old, but I don’t speak any German! It was fine though, she delighted in the fish pools, we made finger food out of sand, I bought her an ice cream and all was right with the world. The others caught up and we indulged in sundowner cocktails and I played the idiot with the setting sun. Back then later to the beach where we had found an eminently convenient restaurant where they threw blankets on the sand, put a table on top and served dinner. Perfect for small people, perfect too if one wished to indulge in the local hootch (rum), not too far to fall.

   We had some moments, actually lots of moments. Here’s one: my money belt got tangled up with the string that holds my swimmies up, under my shorts. I had to, as it were, peer, to untangle the mess.”Is everything ok Tim?” said Julie, hesitantly. Hilarity ensued and I could only reply “debatable”.  Lots of moments,  but then it was off on the speedboat ferry to the mainland, a short taxi ride to the airport and fly away. They are now spending six months looking after Burmese orphans up near the border, Julie at the school and Luca at the hospital. I wish them great success and hope to be able to cross paths with them again somewhere. 

Who knows?

Five on the scooter.

Five on the scooter.

Corny photo. I can add it to the one of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Corny photo. I can add it to the one of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

An interesting phenom' one morning.

An interesting phenom’ one morning.

The 'path' between the beaches.

The ‘path’ between the beaches.

A group outing on a boat with apologies to Paulina!

A group outing on a boat with apologies to Paulina!

Paulina started to crawl. Much excitement.

Paulina started to crawl. Much excitement.

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Tim in Thailand

Hi and hello. I hear rumors that you have missed me. There have been phone calls, emails, texts, where’s Tim? Has he been kidnapped? Is he alright? Sick? Where is he? Short answer, Samet, in the Gulf of Thailand. It is a mere speck of an island only five Kms from top to bottom and about point five across. It is thankfully underdeveloped probably due to the roads, if you could call them roads, potholed tracks might be a better description. No high rises, no ghastly ‘resorts’, no hustlers,  few beach sellers. There is a party scene but some way away from where I am. I like it.

My visa was up in China so I looked around for cheap flights out of Shanghai and found a red eye to Bangkok. The price seemed right and no visa forms are required in advance so I went for it. Then I found I could get the MagLev to the airport. Hold me back. Short for Magnetic Levitation it is the world’s fastest train, 200 MPH. A very smooth ride out of town to Shanghai’s big, new modern airport, no hassle through emigration, though my checked  bag had to be opened and inspected. I was carrying too much money in it, Uzbek Som notes, which you may remember are practically worthless. Anyway, the lady was very friendly and I moved them from the checked bag to my carry on and she seemed satisfied….go figure. Then a huge plane, I was in row 72 and away for the four hours to Bangkok.

I was met, praise be, and quickly transferred to my hotel, where I was greeted at reception at 3am by hand clasping and smiling Thais. I will accentuate smiling, at 3am. Oh joy. Smiles at last. The first for many weeks. I had two beers from the mini bar and sighing with relief fell asleep. Up early later I ventured out into the streets of the city and found that maybe I was in the wrong place. Was I in Torremolinos,  Cancun? Vodka shots at 10.30am? Lots of vodka shots. Conga lines, Karaoke, group sing-along’s. This is not going to last long I say to myself. I put myself in an awkward situation as I have an old friend who lives and works here, at The British Club in fact. I called and spoke to him, gave him my local phone number and the name of my hotel and he said he would call and we would do lunch. He didn’t call. I extended my stay. He didn’t call. I left town.

I caught a bus, a small bus, down the Gulf coast east of Bangkok, to a small port where I could catch a ferry to the small island of Samet babout a half hour off the coast. The boat seemed reluctant to leave so all of us from the bus got to chatting, a German couple from Munich, Luca, a med’ student, his wife Julia, a Montessori teacher (!), Amalie aged two and Paulina at eight months. There were also Tim from the New Forest in Hampshire (UK) and his fiancée, Danielle from Hull, Yorkshire. We had a grand time, the others all booked themselves into the same hotel and the one I had pre-booked on the Internet is only a five minute walk away so we get together most days and pass the time.

   That really is the problem, we just pass the time, eat meals, play with the children, and pass the time. There is nothing much really to write about. The guy selling brooms from a pole slung over his back passes by every morning, which is a major event in my day. The lady with a portable BBQ cooking chicken and fish slung over her shoulder makes an appearance and then disappears. The monsoon makes the occasional rain shower, and everyone heads for shelter. It soon passes. Chinese tourists, mostly young women, appear in speed boats, disembark, take selfies, take group selfies, giggle, screech at each other and then vanish. Where do they come from, where do they go? The hotel staff take breakfast out to the Buddha shrine in the grounds every morning and leave it there as an offering. Wonderfully charming. The beach I am staying on is quiet, very quiet, I count four others on it right now, but a short walk North or South reveals busy beaches and restaurants. Lots and lots of restaurants so as well as taking a rest from the last few weeks I can eat, and eat. The menus are all in English, the food when it arrives is recognizable as food and so I have been catching up after the foodless weeks. The food is delicious, curries for me mostly, rice of course, green vegetables, fruit and I think I may be losing that rather gaunt, starving look. I certainly feel better and have stopped sneezing finally. That has been going on since the yurt in Kyrgyzstan.

   I took advisement before even considering posting this as I didn’t want to annoy everyone with the dull, same old, same old stories of Thailand. I have heard enough to last a lifetime. But there is my contribution. I only got a short stay visa so will be moving on again soon. I hope to return to Cambodia and see some of the things I missed last time, The Plain of Jars, the Tonle Sap river flowing in the opposite direction, maybe take in more of the temples at Angkor, return to Kep, see more of the Mighty Mekong. Be assured that if something notable occurs you will know about it soonest, but I doubt that it will. The tide goes out. The tide comes in. And everyone smiles.

Typical Thai. About fifty yards away.

Typical Thai. About fifty yards away.

 

 

Shanghai.

Warning: This post contains graphic images and descriptions. Of buildings!

Shanghai was overwhelming. I was overwhelmed. Every moment was overwhelming. Every glance, up, down, sideways, every which way was a visual, shattering blow to the senses. Lets get right to it. Shanghai is divided into two major parts divided by a river, the Huangpu. There is the old colonial section (Pu Xi) on the West side of the river fronted by a street called the Bund and on the East side is Pudong, which as recently as twenty years ago was green fields and the occasional factory. Between the Bund and the river is a very long walkway for the crowds of citizens to stroll along of an evening and enjoy the views of Pudong over on the other side. What crowds, what views. My first sight of Pudong took my breath away. Of course I had seen pictures but nothing could have prepared me for the reality of the Oriental Pearl TV Tower. A staggeringly unique piece of architecture it dominates the skyline even though some of the adjacent buildings are taller. I would love to be able to describe it adequately. It’s round, it’s vertical, it soars, it flows, it floats, it exudes daring, it appears to defy gravity. Ok, I’ll shut up now, but wait until you see the photos.

Then there were the crowds on the Bund , swollen I suppose by the fact that I was there during the long, seven day, National Holiday. There is an expression, a sea of people, this was no sea, this was an ocean, a Pacific Ocean of people. I think dusk was the peak period, when everyone came to see the effect of the sunset over the river. The whole family came out, Moms and Dads, the kids and the older folk, bringing their bags of fruit, soft drinks, (no booze), and their phones. Everyone had a phone and was taking pictures with it, of each other, of the view, of themselves, of me! With me! Interesting how one could see similarities from home, there were hipsters, there were punks, arty students, drama kings and queens, fashionistas, poseurs, even a Goth or two. But it was the immensity of the crowd that really impressed me, it was like Oxford Street on the day before Christmas, The Marina district for July 4th fireworks, Princes Street at Hogmanay,combined. It was all reasonably good natured, no drunkenness, no agro, no pushing, shoving, no bad mouthing. But loud, incredibly loud, everyone was talking, at full volume. I sat and gawped for some hours, every evening. And took pictures with my phone. The crowd control personnel were of course much in evidence. There were police squads at every intersection backed up by the militia, unarmed though, not even truncheons, but they did have whistles, and they used them, frequently. They didn’t even look fierce, just young kids, standing to attention in their uniforms. Keeping in mind the situation in Hong Kong I tried to judge the political mood of the crowd, I couldn’t. (TV news has been blacked out for three days and equally I haven’t been able to access the Internet from my computer). I did come across an impromptu dance music party, portable speakers and a generator, and watched it being closed down really quickly by big men in white shirts. Everyone just drifted off.

Anecdotally, I was on the Bund on the first evening of the Holiday at around 4oclock and noticed people sitting down anywhere they could, on walls, steps, the ground and thought, great, fireworks. So I found a spot to perch and waited. More people sat down around me until movement was just about impossible. The railing along the river’s bank was jammed, ten people deep. Darkness fell. The lights in and on the buildings across the river came on and everyone gasped, took more pictures, and that was it. My expectations I suppose, nobody but me was disappointed. I found that quite interesting. A Western thing to expect pyrotechnics on major holidays? But wait, these guys invented fireworks. Maybe they do them on a different holiday.

Shall I mention walking down Nanjing street, a pedestrian shopping area? More crowds, a shoppers paradise, its one of the top ten shopping streets in the world and the things for sale were not only material! Ahem! I took three bus tours around the City and visited some Temples. The French Quarter looked interesting, but alas, no time. There is a fabulous Opera House, a huge museum, the stadiums from the recent Olympics, lots and lots to see, but not in three days. I went on a coach tour to see the tea plantations but didn’t see any, the Yangtze River, didn’t see that either, we did go to a water village, kind of a Chinese mini Venice and a craft shop or two. There was a silk factory, poor worms! More shopping. It took ten hours from door to door.

China is big and there are lots of people.

Pudong waterfront from the Bund.

Pudong waterfront from the Bund.

What a masterpiece.

What a masterpiece.

Night view.

Night view.

Crowd.

Crowd.

Crowd control.

Crowd control.

A tranquil part of the water village. Unlike the rest of it.

A tranquil part of the water village. Unlike the rest of it.

Beijing.

South we go today on the high speed train from Beijing to Shanghai. Cities? Love them or hate them, I found Beijing hard to love. There was the famous smog, oh so horrible, which pervades everything. It reduces visibility and while you might think you are breathing normally just wait until you blow your nose! It is the nation’s capital, so everything is overpriced and you have to continually weigh up whether this purchase is really necessary. A beer in one bar is half the cost at the bar just across the street only fifty yards away. There were hustlers too and I fell for it on day one. The route firmly in my mind I set off to walk from the hotel to the Forbidden Palace, only a half hour walk and mostly a straight line. But. Two beaming students fell in step with me and welcomed me to Beijing. Fine. Nice. They followed me into the travel agency. Odd. Off to the Palace again they suggested that I might like to see their art exhibit. Well OK. We wove through arrow streets and I completely lost my sense of direction. More weaving and we came to their studio, nice enough, but no thank you, I don’t want to buy anything. And left in a bit of a huff. I was then lost for the next while and the only part of the Forbidden City I located was the moat by which time I was exhausted. Back then to the hotel and a nap and a wasted day in Beijing. Grumble grumble.

The hotel Concierge to the rescue. The excellent Yina, apologizing for the art students, calmed me down, dusted me off and suggested a trip the see the Great Wall the next day. When I said I wanted to see the Forbidden Palace as well she told me to turn on my computer in my room and book an extra day online as it would be less than half the price of extending my stay at the reception desk. OK, great. That worked. Then the travel agency found me a train ticket to Shanghai. Things were looking up after a rather bad start. Sure, I felt a bit stupid but worse things have happened in other Capital Cities, there was that time in Rome…….

To the Wall I went. Not to Badaling , the popular destination, but a bit further away to a place called Mutianyu where there is a cable car ride up into the mountains. This of course would be wonderful except I suffer from vertigo, or just a fear of cable cars in general. Would you believe it, my phone worked and I could text back home. Soothing words, again, just think of it as the ride up to that winery in Napa Valley (Stirling). OK, sure, but there’s no wine at the end of this ride. Bravery won the day and off I went. It got better. I could text photos of the Great Wall, with a slight delay, from a cable car, in the mountains of China, to our small town in Northern California. Things have changed, no more waiting until you get home to develop the film and then get reprints and then post them, in an envelope, with a stamp. Oh no, not any more. This is 2014, we text our photos of the Great Wall from our phones and they are received, thousands of miles away, on the other side of the planet, in a matter of seconds.

Brilliant!

I did visit the Forbidden Palace but that was preceded by a quite extraordinary event:

I was chatting with the Concierge staff about my taxi ride to the Palace and asked if they would explain to the driver to drive past Tiananmen Square on the way so I could at least glimpse it. It is rather famous. Yina hummed and hawed then said, come on, I’ll take you, in one of my cars. Pardon? Take me? One of your cars? Sure, lets go, it’s a bit slow today and it will be a good lesson for one of the trainees. Down into the bowels of the staff parking lot and we piled into her rather smart Buick van. On the way she explained that she wanted a BMW but her husband had reservations as he thought she drove too fast. I got to see the famous Square in some style and didn’t have to join any of the huge security lines to gain access. They worry about the Falun Gong setting themselves on fire she explained, nonchalantly. She took photos for me out of the driver’s side window. I heard great stories about the Olympics, how an Australian tv crew were staying at the hotel and couldn’t be bothered to attend some of the events they were supposed to cover so gave the tickets to the staff. She had been to the gymnastics and the swimming, for free. Not only that. The tv crew had their own butler, provided by the hotel, who used the two tickets the crew gave him to the Opening Ceremony to treat his Dad. And Then. He sold his two tickets to the Closing Ceremony, bought a new car and retired back to his village. $10k each. Eat yer hearts out Olympic fans. It was great, she said, all the subways and buses were free for the duration of the Games, but nobody at the hotel used them, they all had to stay in the basement parking lot which was converted into dormitories. They were paid for 24 hours a day for the duration of the Games, but worked regular shifts. Nice.

She dropped me off at the Palace ticket office, explaining that the trainee would escort me round if I paid for his ticket. Hey, no problem…..Hmm, but, not only had he never been to the Palace before but his English was, shall we say, a bit limited. I gave him my camera and he happily snapped away. My history is a bit rusty but I think there was a war sometime at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. The Eight Allies? Opium Wars? Anyway the invading army completely looted the Palace. Quite disappointing. The buildings themselves were a marvel to behold, but I felt it was all a bit sad so I won’t go on. Or am I just a Philistine?

I gave the hotel and Concierge staff a five star revue on Trip Advisor.

Attempting the arty shot.

Attempting the arty shot.

Not too crowded.

Not too crowded.

Off into the distance.....

Off into the distance…..

Just in case you have forgotten what I look like.

Just in case you have forgotten what I look like.

It was a quiet day on the Wall.

It was a quiet day on the Wall.

There he is.

There he is.

It is a very large square.

It is a very large square.

There he is again. He does rather dominate the scene.

There he is again. He does rather dominate the scene.

Mao's mausoleum.

Mao’s mausoleum.

Forbidden Palace.

Forbidden Palace.