29 June 2011

Cambodia

How many Cambodian citizens died between 1975 and 1979? We will probably never know. They died because of the warped, ill-considered and soulless philosophy of the eerie Khmer Rouge that emerged in the country because of a power vacuum, dire poverty and the proximity of both Maoist China and the wreckage that was Vietnam with its own "killing fields" - courtesy of the USA.

To the west of this poor little county, sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam is the massive Angkor Wat temple complex, mainly built during the twelfth century and at first inspired by Hinduism. Satellite temples are located many miles distant from the central buildings. Some of these structures were once forgotten, consumed by tropical jungle.

This is where I have chosen to go in my last full week in South East Asia. The flights are booked and so are the hotels. It will be another adventure which of course I hope to survive even though there are some dangers in Cambodia - aggressive beggars, unexploded land mines, a corrupt and largely ineffective police force, a whole range of rip-off merchants, thieves and touts. But I cling firmly to the belief that wherever you go in the world, the vast majority of people are essentially good.

This afternoon the international school had its Awards Ceremony in the nearby Sofitel ballroom. It was packed. Perhaps six hundred seats were taken. Pupils, parents and staff. The headteacher and his deputy wore absurd academic gowns. I wore the stylish blue linen mix jacket that was tailored for me by "Boss" at Sukhumvit - probably Bangkok's trendiest street. You will be happy to know that I looked very smart and had even remembered to zip up my flyhole!

The buffet nosh afterwards was wonderful. So many man and woman hours must have gone into the creation of top quality tiny savouries and desserts. It all looked amazing and there was plenty to go round. I kept sidling over to try this and that - very casually as if I wasn't interested in buffet food at all. Is it possible to stuff a Yorkshire pudding to bursting point at a finger buffet? That seemed to be the experiment I was conducting.

Only a day and a half to go. In some ways, I don't want my time at that lovely school to end. It has been the perfect antidote to the "shit sandwich" effect that I endured in my last two or three years as a Head of English in Sheffield, Yorkshire. How sad then, that some of my temporary colleagues in Bangkok waste much energy on back-biting, gossip and letting off of steam. They'd be better off smiling - here in the "land of smiles" and just getting on with the job. They are so fortunate.

27 June 2011

Rambling

Rambling quite literally on Saturday and rambling thoughts in my head. My last full weekend in Bangkok. Above a seething mob of fish in the Chao Phraya River when I crossed to the western bank to walk round old Thonburi and to climb The Temple of The Dawn at Wat Arun. I had been to the National Museum and later I paid my dues and was elevated to the revolving observation platform on top of the Baiyoke Tower - Thailand's tallest building. Below a late evening view along the Vipawadi-Rangsit Road:-
Then afterwards in a little Indian curry restaurant, the waiter wasn't asking me how hot I would like my curry or what kind of rice I'd prefer - instead he was asking me how many Thai girls I had copulated with and the dimensions of my own Baiyoke Tower - the one I keep in my trousers. "Oh Thai girl like older farang. Eighteen. Nineteen. No problem. She let you do it. How many you have?" I must say, I suddenly wanted to punch this odious, perverted and racist creep on the snout but I kept my dignity, ate my curry and went.

On Sunday I went cycling in Rot Fai Park and then walked in the heat to the massive Chatuchak Weekend Market where I bought a couple of presents to take home. I am flying to Cambodia on Friday - as soon as the school year finishes - to see Angkor Wat - the world's largest religious complex and then on on to Phnom Penh. One reviewer speaks of the increasing frequency of tourists being "bricked" in Phnom Penh. Gulp! I'm going to have to keep my wits about me.

In a few hours, it will be exactly one year since my brother Paul died. At his little anniversary event in County Clare, this poem by W.B.Yeats was recited:-

The Fiddler of Dooney

When I play on my fiddle in Dooney,
Folk dance like a wave of the sea;
My cousin is priest in Kilvarnet,
My brother in Moharabuiee.

I passed my brother and cousin:
They read in their books of prayer;
I read in my book of songs
I bought at the Sligo fair.

When we come at the end of time,
To Peter sitting in state,
He will smile on the three old spirits,
But call me first through the gate.

For the good are always the merry,
Save by an evil chance,
And the merry love the fiddle
And the merry love to dance:

And when the folk there spy me,
They will all come up to me,
With ‘Here is the fiddler of Dooney!’
And dance like a wave of the sea.


Paul would have appreciated that I'm sure. Hi Paul! How are ye doing? Tell me - have they got Guinness in heaven?

25 June 2011

Opposites

On Thursday night, after the secondary school musical production had finished, there were celebratory drinks to be guzzled at a local bar. As we climbed the mountainous pedestrian bridge over a never-ending stream of traffic, I noticed a young beggar huddled in the shadows, sitting cross-legged. Both of his hands were missing. I think he certainly was "livin' on a prayer"!

I am sure that when it comes to beggars, there are far worse Asian cities than Bangkok but there are enough here to notice. People from the shadows. Below the breadline over which the majority of Thailand's lowly paid workers hover. I shall return to that bridge to see if I can find that young man and I will give him all of the loose change I have amassed in the last five months - which probably amounts to three or four hundred baht.

Then on Friday night, two of my English "co-workers"- were summoned to a parent's house for drinks and dinner. They asked me to go too. Let me give her the pseudonym Khun Lik. She is fifty years old and has twin boys in the school. She is the self-appointed leader of parents - their voice. She sent her driver and we duly climbed in her shiny black people carrier. Clearly she is not "livin' on a prayer" but on a big fat bank account and "wise" investments.

Khun Lik's house was half an hour away on the northern edge of the city, in an exclusive gated neighbourhood. A button was pressed and the electric gates swished open. Three unlovable dogs greeted us threateningly and we were ushered into the house through a large stained glass double door entrance. Wow! The entrance hall! Its footprint was bigger than the entire downstairs of our house in Sheffield. An expanse of shiny cream-coloured marble, a large scale model galleon on a French-polished occasional table. The kind of house a Premiership football star might inhabit.

Sliding doors took us into the enormous family kitchen which had - attached to it - a second fully-equipped kitchen. I kid you not. No expense had been spared on the fitments but I noticed a familiarly unpleasant odour in the air - a faint whiff of stale cigarette smoke. Outside in the shady carport area was Khun Lik's other car - a brand new 4x4 BMW. "I like big cars but my husband he like small cars," she said, pointing at his banana coloured Porsche. "He also like motorbike" she said pointing at his two 500+cc motorbikes - a BMW and an equally shiny Harley Davidson.

"This my gym. It quite small, " she said but it was fully equipped and it overlooked the family's large oval-shaped saltwater swimming pool. "That my yard", said Khun Lik, pointing through her tropical shubbery to the lawn beyond. "Oh and that my mother's quarters when she come to stay," she said, pointing towards the luxury granny flat. "My servant come from Laos, Burma and northern Thailand", she said. Apparently she has ten "servants".

But I wasn't jealous - not one little bit - until I went to the downstairs lavatory or "rest room" (!). There I saw one of my lottery winning dreams - a men's porcelain urinal as well as the usual lavatory bowl. When peeing, I think it is much more natural for men to aim outwards rather than downwards. The things we do for women folk! To have your own urinal - why then you would know for sure that you had "made it".

At first we sat at the outside teak table and consumed three bottles of red wine. I never usually touch the stuff but we weren't asked what we would like and I could hardly say "No thanks! I want beer or sauvignon blanc love!" They must have thought their Chilean red was out of the ordinary but in England I used to often see that brand on the shelves at "Netto".

Our Thai meal was okay but I have had much better food in Thailand. Khun Lik seemed very opinionated and not very curious about me - somebody she had only been briefly introduced to once before. By ten thirty I was flagging. Her husband - a petrochemical engineer -plied us with the very best brand of Chinese rice wine -53% proof. He just disappeared - no cheery "good nights". And then we marched back across the marble acres to the front door.

I wonder what the man with no hands was doing as Khun Lik's chauffeur returned us to our rented rabbit hutch homes where we may or not have been livin' on our prayers as well as our pleasant monthly incomes. By the way "Khun" is not a swear word, it is a polite form of address reserved for women of status who are deserving of respect. It is most inadvisable to accidentally add a "t" to the appellation.

22 June 2011

Children

Wood. Some men make their living from wood. Or clay, or engines, or food packaging, or golf but me, I have made my living from children. They have sat in front of me in rows or giggled with me in drama studios. They have travelled with me on buses or listened to me in changing rooms. Every one of them has been different, unique. I have visited some of their homes. Berated some of them, comforted others, made them laugh, bored them, marked their books and exam papers, listened to their excuses and their dreams. Children. That is how I have made my living.

And when St Peter greets me at the gates of paradise and takes out his little black book or his i-phone or whatever it is that saints use to make final reckonings, he will surely quickly deduce that the best achievement of my life was fathering two wonderful children. Children again - even though our two babies are now fully grown adults in their own right - they're still our children.

Some men despise children. Many times friends and acquaintances have said to me - "I don't know how you do it. I'd be whacking them. I hate children" and I have even known men who have proudly boasted that they never bathed their kids or changed their nappies or pretended that spoons of baby food were trains going into dark tunnels. Yet I am glad that I played a full part in rearing our children and when on Father's Day my lovely, clever Frances writes, "I miss you lots and can't wait for you to get home" I feel it confirms that I have passed the fatherhood test with honours.

Don't get me wrong. There have certainly been a few children whom I have also despised for their big headedness, their uncooperativeness or their surly ignorance. I have met some total horrors. Some should surely have been exterminated at birth but most children I have known have been worth knowing with redeeming qualities and their own interesting stories to tell.

Here in Bangkok, I have encountered such lovely children. They address me by my name and appreciate my efforts for them. Generally speaking they look you in the eye and they smile. If you ask them questions, they try to answer. And they are so nice to each other - supportive, encouraging , instead of trying to score cheap points from one another. They seem to recognise that I am the adult in charge and they are the children. In western schools - not just in England - many children seem - for whatever reason - to have lost sight of that delineation, that natural hierarchy. Here are two of my Thai pupils - Mandy and Phrao, aged twelve - an hour after school had finished for the day:-

19 June 2011

Monkeys

At Koh Takiab, near the Thai seaside resort of Hua Hin, macaque monkeys seem to outnumber day visitors. They're all over the place - ripping corrugated iron from roofs, grooming each other, swinging from telegraph wires, urinating from treetops, suckling baby monkeys. Notoriously difficult to photograph, they seem to know the very moment that you are about to click - that's usually when they vamoose. I took a lot of rubbishy pictures but I think these are good enough to share:-

16 June 2011

Poem

Ornithology

Under concrete eaves
Their amber beaks
Such tiny tender V's
Reached blindly for the sky
From their maternal nest
Where a verdant mango branch
Had stretched itself.

For three weeks
From my Bangkok balcony
I had watched the languid
Streak-eared bulbul drama
Unfolding.

Skittishly weaving
The to-ing and fro-ing
Of mum
Her little black eyes
Like tiny sequins
Alert
And then the three pale eggs
That she sat upon
Like watercolour pebbles
Flitting only when
She heard me at my door.

Finally 6.57am
June thirteenth -
There they were -
A yard from my open mouth -
Demanding sustenance,
Claiming time.

Grinning stupidly
I vowed to photograph them
When I got home...
And in that early evening,
As monstrous nimbus
Grew steely grey above the concrete tollway
Arching over rainbow-coloured
Traffic jams

I crept out to observe
The infant
Picnonotus blanfordi
Only to find them gone -
Too young to fly,
Too young to die -
An emptiness revealed.

Nobody mourned the helpless hatchlings
But me.
I turned to watch the world news
From the paternal BBC -
From Yemen to Syria
From Myanmar to Libya
Eyes raised blindly to the sky
For liberty and justice -
And the basic right to fly.

15 June 2011

Rules

Some rules for living are proscribed by law and others are instinctive. Together these rules provide foundation stones for social life. It might well be said that in small, subtle ways these "rules" constitute the very character of a particular culture. Here are some surprising "rules" that are endemic in Thailand:-
  • If driving a car never stop at a pedestrian zebra crossing, even if there are people actually walking across it.
  • If you own a motorbike, feel free to ride it as fast as you wish along pavements where pedestrians are walking.
  • If you own a motorbike, please don't wear a helmet.
  • If you own a two-seater motorbike feel free to transport your entire family on it - babies, animals and all.
  • If you own a motorbike make sure you use a mobile phone when in transit.
  • If you are active in a political party, feel free to erect giant posters on pavements so that pedestrians cannot get past them without stepping in the road.
  • If you are a waiter or waitress, as soon as you have delivered the menu you must stand next to the diner impatiently waiting for his order.
  • If you are a waiter or waitress make sure that you habitually get diners' orders wrong. Bringing starters to tables after main courses is advisable.
  • When riding on buses, never talk loudly - keep quiet apart from when your obnoxious ringtone goes off - then you can talk over your mobile phone as loudly as you wish.
  • When standing on a crowded metro or "skytrain" you must face forward - not backwards or to the side.
  • If you are an attractive young woman you must wear tight skimpy shorts or very short dresses to inflame the passions of passing middle-aged "farangs".
  • If you are a woman you must not touch a Buddhist monk.
  • Do not touch other people's heads.
  • Do not talk about the King of Thailand who is as venerated as the Lord Buddha himself.
  • If selling wine in a supermarket, make sure the bottle price is at least double the average European price.
  • If you own a dog there is no need to have it on a lead or anything like that - just let it roam the streets so that it can make a pack with other street dogs.
  • If you are a car driver, you must only use your horn in dire emergencies - never to express annoyance or frustration.
  • Drop litter where ever you want to.
  • If you operate a business, employ large numbers of people, specially selected because of their low levels of competence.
  • If you own a business, pay your workers as little as you possibly can so that they only have enough for basic survival.
  • If you own a construction business, ignore normal health and safety rules and irritating building regulations that get in the way of progress.
  • If you are a market trader, do not harangue or hassle potential customers as such behaviour is considered most impolite.
  • At supermarket checkouts, never help the shopper behind you by putting the plastic divider on the conveyor belt for them.
  • Take off your shoes before you enter somebody's home or any Buddhist temple.
The country seems to have many other "rules" like this. The longer I have stayed here in "The Land of Smiles", the more I have noticed these odd codes of conduct. They remind me that I am far from home.

13 June 2011

Sukhothai

She was collecting snails

"Hello! Sawasdee kap! Hello!"

It was midnight on Friday and there I was at the spiked steel gates of the Orchid Hibiscus Guesthouse just outside the ancient city. Next to me was my slightly inebriated "taxi" driver. Can you call a beaten up old Toyota pick up truck a taxi? This man, Non, told me he loved me but I think this was just because I had bought him a can of "Chang" beer when we stopped at the 7/11 store.

"No, you don't love me! You love her!" I said, pointing at his slightly inebriated missus leaning from the passenger seat in her straw coolie hat.

Non was yelling with me. It was a midnight serenade. So much for Booking.com's promise that this little hotel had "24 hr reception" and so much for the customer note I had added to my booking - "...arriving around midnight."

I was beginning to have awful visions of sleeping in toothless Non's pick up truck down some Buddha-forsaken dirt track in the middle of Thailand when glory be, the awakened receptionist sauntered to the gate with a key. Saved.
Lord Pudding's chamber

In the morning, after a breakfast that included wild honey, delicious fat little bananas and coconut rice cakes, I rented a red bicycle and began pedalling around the ancient mini-kingdom I had come to see.

How glorious it must have been - a veritable Garden of Eden in the heart of South East Asia, long before there were named countries like Thailand, Cambodia or Burma. It seems that King Ramkamhaeng was a benevolent monarch, ahead of his time. He encouraged trade and allegedly created the first written form of Thai but I doubt that he laboured in the sun with rocks or bricks to build the temples and meeting halls that grew up in great preponderance in and around the moated city with its huge earthen walls.
Sukhothai bloomed for two hundred years - from 1238 to 1438 before rule and influence shifted south to the city of Ayutthaya which was the Siamese capital for a further three hundred years.

Ramkamhaeng's representatives visited China, India and Sri Lanka. Trading links were established but perhaps the most significant import of all was the Buddhist faith, coloured with flecks and traces of Hinduism that came from the Indian subcontinent, transforming itself as it travelled into a Siamese version of the faith which to this day continuously reinvents itself.

In the early evening, a security guard allowed me back into the central area of the "historical park" to take photos of Wat Mahathat, eerily illuminated in the black darkness but I couldn't get close because of a pack of gnashing curs who appeared to be ganging up on me like wolves of yore.
Wat Mahathat at night

And then as I pedalled homewards to the Orchid Hibiscu,s down a long dark tarmac road, another slavering hound ran out of the darkness at me barking as if it had emerged from The Baskervilles. "Yaa!!" I yelled, pedalling faster than Sir Chris Hoy on amphetamines. The vicious mutt began to tire at the very moment that the pressure of my muscular energy caused my bike chain to come off. I free-wheeled another hundred metres. The Lord Buddha himself knows what might have transpired if the chain had come off further back down the road. I would have been dog meat.

At 6.30 on Sunday morning I was up swimming in the little hotel's twenty five metre pool before another forray into Sukhothai's open-air archaeological treasure house, a fascinating visit to the Ramkamhaeng National Museum and a seven hour bus journey back to Bangkok. Glad I went, in spite of those damnable dogs!
Wat Si Chum

12 June 2011

Prequel

Sorry I haven't posted in a few days. This weekend I bussed it up to Sukhothai, seven hours north of Bangkok. It was here in the very heart of Thailand that King Ramkamhaeng developed an amazing Buddhist city in the thirteenth century, complete with a water system, huge ramparts and moats as well as scores of temples and statues. It must have been such a wonder to behold, far from the imaginings of Europeans. I will say more, but before I hit the hay ready for work on Monday morning, here are just two photos I snapped:-

8 June 2011

Posters

Election fever is growing in Thailand. The polls open on July 3rd. The front-runners are the incumbent Democrat Party led by the erudite Oxford-educated prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and The Pheu Thai Party led by the photogenic political novice Yingluck Shinawatara - sister of disgraced former leader Thaksin Shinawatra - still in exile over greedily extracting millions of baht from the public purse. They reckon that from afar this megalomaniac is pulling many of the election strings just as he was most influential in last year's "red shirts" demonstrations that resulted in many deaths and injuries.

Anyway, the intention of this post is not to lecture you about Thai politics but to share with you some of the posters that are now decking the streets of Bangkok. Every party has its own number on the ballot paper. What an odd "co-incidence" that Miss Yingluck's party get Box 1! But here's Mr Spock, representing party number 21:-
And here's Miss Yingluck just outside my bijou residence, looking rather battered:-
Here's the prime minister with his old fag from Eton as Yingluck lurks menacingly behind:-
The mad scientist party have fallen to the ground:-
But my favourite poster has to be this one for Party No. 2. What is the baby saying to the electorate? Probably what all politicians think about the hoi polloi in their constituencies. But the baby is making no bones about it. No pretence. The two-fingered salute says simply, "Give us your vote and then f... off!" I think that party Number 2 - and what is a "number two" (?) - must have been schooled by The Right Honourable Nicholas Clegg MP for Sheffield Hallam:-
Doesn't that just about sum up all politicians?

5 June 2011

Scarecrow

There's an intruder in my garden back in Sheffield. She has been planting vegetables and ensuring that my little patch of prepared earth doesn't lie fallow this summer. I have been giving her long distance advice. The English spring has apparently been most wonderful weatherwise and there has been much watering to do. In comparison, jobs like ironing, changing bed linen, washing clothes, drying them, vacuuming, dusting and bleaching the toilet bowls are of course dead easy - woman's work. Now my little scarecrow is discovering what man's work is all about. Hard! Bloody hard!

Through the wonders of modern technology, yesterday our Frances snapped this picture on her phone, uploaded it and then emailed it to me in Thailand and now I am displaying it - sideways on* - to the entire world! Well to Jenny in Wrexham, John in Trelawnyd, Ian in south Manchester and a handful of other readers who drop in to this rambling blog from time to time. The wife:-
* The wonders of modern technology! I cannot re-orientate it no matter how I try! So bend your head!

4 June 2011

Interesting

When I am at my computer keyboard, I do go elsewhere. It's not all about blogging. For the past few years I have been contributing photos to the Panoramio website. From there over 350 of my pictures have been selected for Google Earth and may also be seen in Google Maps etc..

In 2006, I visited Berlin for the first time. Afterwards, I added a few of my Berlin and Sachsenhausen (concentration camp) photos to the Panoramio website. Incredibly, Panoramio provide running totals of visitors who have looked at one's pictures whilst on the internet. I posted the following photos on the same day. Here's my picture of the Jewish Holocaust Monument in Berlin. Established many years after World War II, it recognises Germany's role in the unnecessary deaths of approximately six million Jews:-
And here's my picture of the site of Hitler's "Fuhrerbunker" in Berlin. The place where that evil, racist, ego-maniacal monster died:-
These two sites are spitting distance from each other. What interests me and the reason for this post is that I note that just twenty six visitors have looked at the Holocaust Memorial picture but currently 4,802 have checked out my photo of the site of Hitler's bunker. What does this say about people if a memorial to six million gets so few visits while the eerie but unremarkable plaza where just one "man" - the "Fuhrer" - made his last throws of the dice has attracted the attention of almost five thousand people? I find it spooky and not a little sad. How far have we travelled I wonder?

2 June 2011

Grumbling

Blogging is great for grumbling - letting off steam and having a good old moan. As I can't think of much else to post about today, I shall return to one of my pet themes - namely taxi drivers.

Here in Bangkok there seem to be thousands of taxis - often brightly coloured. You rarely have to wait long for a cab. You hail one, open the front passenger door and enquire if the driver is prepared to take you where you want to go. This can be more challenging than it might seem as hardly any taxi drivers in Bangkok speak more than three English words. Also they have clearly all been trained in negative and disinterested body language. Sometimes the signal that the fellow is prepared to transport you is shown by the very slightest inclination of the mandibles.

Bangkok's metered taxis are incredibly cheap. The meter begins at thirty five baht (70 UKpence or $1.15 US) but then the meter ascends very slowly. A long trip to the state-of-the-art international airport - Suvarnabhumi (Soo-wanna-poom) nearly eighteen miles from here will cost a mere £6 UK ($9.80US or $12NZ).

In Thailand, tipping is not customary - which suits me just fine. Around the world, taxi drivers seem to expect to be tipped after every trip. However, I have always had an aversion to this habit as in my many years as a teacher I never received one single gratuity from a parent - even if I was the last to leave a parents' evening at nine o'clock on an icy winter's night or I'd given up several lunchtimes to coach a struggling child. Not one groat, one centime or one dong! Zilch! Yet somebody sitting on his (or her) fat backside turning a steering wheel and getting lost not only expects an inflated fare but also a tip!

In tourist hot spots in Thailand there is always a danger of being ripped off by taxi drivers even though most taxi drivers in the country seem scrupulously honest. Last Sunday, in the southern town of Krabi, I agreed to pay a pick-up truck or song thaew "taxi" driver a certain sum of money to get to the airport. I had just travelled from Ao Nang to Krabi for forty baht - a distance of seventeen kilometres. In Krabi town, I climbed into the back of the jallopy, squeezing in next to some local people.
Thai Song Thaew "taxi-bus"

I noted that when the woman who had been sitting next to me paid the driver at his window she gave him fifteen baht. A mile later, at the airport, I got out the twenty baht we had agreed and the driver started shaking his head. "Two hundred! Two hundred!"

"No way!" I insisted. "We agreed twenty baht"

"Song thaew two hundred from town."

"We agreed twenty mate and besides there were half a dozen people in the back with me! It might be two hundred for somebody on their own."

The bloke was becoming aereated. He tried to phone someone on his mobile phone.

"Look. I am an honest man!" I said. "As a compromise I will give you one hundred baht and no more! I don't like being cheated so you will take the hundred and bugger off!"

I tossed the banknote into his cab and waltzed into the airport as he sped away - no doubt seething about the farangs whose business puts food on his table.

This was just another incident to add to my lifelong catalogue of "events" with taxi drivers. Having rid Sheffield of several parking enforcement officers last year, I am considering a similar campaign against taxi drivers when I return to England or possibly I will limit myself to a protest march on parliament, urging our noble MPs to make the tipping of taxi drivers illegal.