Friday, April 29, 2011

Isaan Odyssey, Part 21: Phu Prabat Flowers

There were a few photos of orchids I'd taken at Phu Phrabat that didn't seem to fit with the other two posts - but since I'm heading to a funeral today and flowers do seem to be in order, here they are. All wild orchids, one crowning a stag horn bromeliad.

[By the way - this is Part 21 of a series. If you found this via a search or just happened upon it some other way you can find parts 1 through 20 by clicking HERE]

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Isaan Odyssey, Part 20: Phu Prabat 2

The overall sparse look to Phu Prabat Historical Park is deceptive. The huge rock structures you saw in yesterday's post were made by nature, but there was an enormous amount of man hours put into crafting many of them into cave dwellings worthy of The Flintstones cartoons from the 1960s. as a bizarre side track thought, back about the time of the TV show there was a home built South of San Francisco that caused quite an uproar with the "hi-so" neighbors. Some of us thought it was a hoot, though:

Sorry about that. Sometimes my mind just wanders off to some of the strangest places. Back to today's topic...

The residents of the Phu Prabat location carved usable areas from the rock walls and overhangs (note the carving markings in the photo below) to create space that was undoubtedly reserved for the higher-ranking members of the group, but this is just my guess. I'd suppose we rank and file folks had less durable shelter, if for no other reason than the vast amount of effort it must have taken to create the more desirable spots that were probably used for worship and royalty.

Note the countless scratches made while creating the flat wall - each one about 1cm wide

Estimates indicate the paintings inside the cave-like areas were done somewhere around 3000BC, and yet have stood the test of time - and visitors - since. Again, these were in the open and I'll admit there was a temptation to touch the wall where another human must have leaned that long ago... but I didn't, of course. Although the description "awesome" has been overused for years it truly was awe inspiring to stand before these true relics of prehistoric times. Below are a few of these paintings.

I'm still impressed that a sign has been all that's been needed to keep these paintings from being disturbed or vandalized, such as the ladder-like image in the photo above. I can't imagine that happening in too many other places.

The cave above was called tham khon, or human cave. The people sitting at the entrance give you some perspective for size, and behind them were a number of paintings such as the ones below showing a line of people and some water buffalo. The human images were about three feet tall, and the buffalo maybe 2 feet tall.

Also in the area were many areas believed to have been living and ceremonial spots, carved into the natural formations. As these are believed to have been done by peoples living there in the area between 3000BC and 6000BC there's no way to know, but they were fascinating to gaze upon and wonder.

The view above from a distance, the panorama below shows more detail

Naturally, there was also abundant evidence of a Buddhist presence to the site, of varying time periods. The one below was more current and had been regularly tended to in the present day.

The stone carvings to the left of the rocks below date back much farther, but there wasn't notation indicating when. You can see Suphot taking a photo almost beneath the large stone resting above him, and detail of the carvings is in the photo below that one.

It was an impressive site, start to finish. I had no idea where we were heading when we left the hotel that morning, and to say I was bowled over by this rich display of unusual terrain, amazing rock formations, culture and art work thousands of years old right in front of me would be an understatement. It was a day I'll long remember.

Phu Phrabat Historical Park is indicated by the green dot on the map above

[By the way - this is Part 20 of a series. If you found this via a search or just happened upon it some other way you can find parts 1 through 19 by clicking HERE]

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Isaan Odyssey, Part 19: Phu Prabat Historical Park

Placed by nature, there were dozens of these huge stone "displays"

Although there was no discernible evidence of pee (ghosts) at Phu Prabat Historical Park, there was an eerie feel to the place. For a start, it was very, very quiet on the day I visited; we encountered few others on our trek along well-worn, dusty paths through the somewhat sparse forest areas, but also the ancient sites encountered along the way.

Up and down the hilly (but easy) walking path to the site itself

We'd left the hotel shortly after my friend arrived somewhere near 10:00 that morning, Suphot again driving the other two of us along the minor highway up into the slightly elevated country area where the park is located around 40 miles/70Km from Udonthani. With two stops it took us a little over an hour and a half to get there.

Many, many things to see - it took us a couple of hours to merely make the basic tour

My friend had visited the park previously so he served as leader for the three of us, and after I paid my 30 baht entrance fee we were off through hill and dale. Thai living in the area consider this a place of pilgrimage as the history recorded there (surrounded by legend and decorated by ancient crude rock paintings) encompasses several cultures reaching back to prehistoric times. One legend has it that the 75-foot stone tower Hoh Nang-Usa below was where a very protective King Phaya Kong Phan kept his beautiful daughter Nang Usua out of the reach of suitors he didn't approve of. They probably weren't deluxe accommodations back in the time, but it's probably safe to say she had a decent view...

That's not to say there weren't signs that procreation wasn't celebrated and beliefs in sexual strength and prowess weren't something just as admired then as now - as the phallus to the left would give testimony to, if it could tell tales - but naturally the head honcho wanted to have some say as to who his daughter would be doing it with. It must have been an uncomfortable and perhaps lonesome life for her if she was required to spend much time up in her room. As at many older sites there were quite a number of these stone phallus around.

There were dozens of other sites and spots of interest in the park, too, of course; surreal natural rock formations, small Buddhist installations and paintings estimated to be around 3,000 years old on the walls of "caves" (although they were really just overhangs and outcroppings - not what you'd normally think of as caves). You'll see more of these tomorrow - there are just too many pictures for one post.

Something that often impresses me while visiting ancient sites, temples and other examples of Thai artistry is the fact that the Thai themselves respect the places enough that there isn't often the need for ropes, barricades, glass cases and security to keep people from putting their hands on things - or carrying them away somehow as a souvenir, either by sample or in whole.

At home you can't often visit a site such as this without seeing "DJ/DaLoveMan" or some other such stupid thing scratched, felt penned or painted around or on it. The practice is called "tagging" here in the USA, and it's such abhorrent behavior I can't say what I really think of people who participate in it on a polite web site such as this. The one group of young people we ran into (above) were there to observe, read the numerous and informative signs and learn about the history of the place. It was both heartening and refreshing.

Next up in Part 20: Phu Prabat dwellings and paintings from 3,000 to 6,000 BC

Suphot does as thousands probably have before him and poses, holding the rock up

[By the way - this is Part 19 of a series. If you found this via a search or just happened upon it some other way you can find parts 1 through 18 by clicking HERE.]

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Accommodations, Part 11: De Arni Hotel, Bangkok

My standard room with a king-size bed, overlooking Suriwong Road

The De Arni hotel on Surawong (also spelled Surawongse, Suriwong and Suriwongse) Road ran a "soft opening" for quite a few months a few years ago, and they did need the time to work out the kinks in the operation. Since then it's become a nice place to stay and usually garners good comments on forums and travel sites. I've stayed there during both periods, myself.

The shower/tub combination and the refrigerator/coffee area

The hotel was recommended to me late in 2008 by a farang friend as a new place to try, and it was a pleasant stay at decent rates when I was there a few months later; there were deals to be had for 1,000 baht (about $29USD) at the time. As of today their web site lists rates around twice that much for the same room, but it's still a decent value, even without breakfast.

It's located next to the Le Meridian hotel, on the opposite side of the street from the Siam Heritage, close to the Patpong night market area, a lot of interesting restaurants, Soi Yipun and the nightlife along Soi Duangthawee (Soi Twilight). And speaking of nightlife, for those of you who are wondering there was a sign saying they had a 600 baht joiner fee that was pointed out by the receptionist before I could even say "hello" the first time, but I didn't notice it on the counter or anywhere else the second visit. Just FYI.

Also during that "soft opening" visit a friend came to drive me out a ways for dinner directly from work - dressed like the receptionist below - and when I came down to collect him to take him up to my room while I finished getting ready they stopped him and asked me for the fee. I was ready to say that I didn't know too many gogo boys driving new BMWs, but then realized I did know one; and by that time my friend had said something quietly to them himself that caused them to fall all over each other behind the counter, apologizing. HA!

The rooms come with the standard amenities: an electronic room safe, slippers, robes, LAN internet connectivity (wireless in the lobby), coffee and tea and a hot water pot, daily water, a small refrigerator and good air conditioning. I have a friend who loves to "play water," as he refers to it, so an actual tub is something I look for when I know he'll be passing through. I'm not sure if the smaller single rooms have a tub, so I'd ask. Those rooms are a bit small, though - I saw one.

As you can see in the photo above left the desk lacked a chair with a back to it and the sitting chair from in front of the window was a tad low for me, but that's a small thing for most of you who wouldn't be doing much at the desk, anyway.

For those of you who look for a pool, don't bother - there isn't one. The gym room isn't very large, but the equipment they've stocked it with is decent and it's kept clean. The morning buffet in the restaurant had food for the Japanese clientele in addition to the standard fare - but the omelets were good. One morning I was amused to see one of the restaurant staff running around in his socks, as though someone had taken his shoes or slippers, but I didn't ask why he only had socks on his feet. From the looks of them he'd been wearing them for a while. I haven't had lunch or dinner there, and frankly there are far more interesting-looking places outside of the hotel, anyway.

The staff - such as the receptionist above - have always been pleasant and efficient. During my stay while they were all still somewhat in training I returned one afternoon to discover that housekeeping left a trail of very dirty rubber slipper footprints across the room and back, but they were quick to send someone up with a mop to take care of that.

The rates through their site today were much the same as Agoda quoted, and I'm guessing they now allow others to book them, too. They're worth checking out.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Safety On The Job...Or Not...

Rubbish collectors in Bangkok: the yellow crusher was shut off... I think.

After a few visits to countries with different safety standards then here at home it wasn't all that difficult to slide into acceptance of the somewhat fatalistic attitude that's so prevalent in many other places.

Danger warning sign at a commercial construction site in Bangkok, but a rare bird

It didn't take me all that long before I didn't even look twice when I saw a worker scampering up a seemingly makeshift set of bamboo scaffolding in their shorts and rubber flip flop sandals to do some spot welding without any protective eye wear whatsoever - unless I was casting an appreciative glance at them if they happened to be "hahn-sam". It's not that you don't care about their obviously flagrant abuses of what we'd take as common safety practices, but you see it on such a regular basis that you can easily become numb to it.

Larger and more organized work sites still tend to at least offer a warning to workers on the job - such as the large collection of "NO" warnings on the sign above, but I've seen repeated occurances where those warnings were completely ignored, sometimes by the very supervisors in place to monitor the workers. My favorite of the warnings is the one forbidding rubber slippers (to the left).

You saw the image of the rubbish collector up top today, right? I was watching workers tip up the green collecting beds of their trucks as they emptied them into the yellow trucks, which had compressing machinery in them to fit more into the containers to be hauled away. As I stood looking down the nine floors from my hotel window the man in the blue jumpsuit signaled his co-worker in the green truck to begin tilting the container bed up backwards to slide the contents into the waiting yellow crushing mechanism, and while the crusher was chomping down on the stuff sliding into it the man climbed in and began stomping the debris down into the crusher (below), moving along with it.

Playing "chicken" with a hydraulic compressor

I stopped taking pictures before he got too much closer than in the picture above because I'm not all that entertained by the gruesome, but it made me a little tense, regardless. I imagine he's done it a hundred times, but I wonder how many more lives that particular "cat" has left in him.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Night Photos, Part 15: Pattaya Again

On a side soi in Jomtien Complex

Not being all that much of a "clubs" person (but knowing that many of you are fans of the night life there) I often end up walking around Pattaya taking pictures in the evenings to share here. The exterior sign lighting involved helps make the buildings interesting subjects, so to speak, and the ongoing activity tends to make the areas rich with photo opportunities overall. The green sea of light around Royal House next to TukCom (below) is a good example, I think, as well as the shot of the additional seating at Dicks Jomtien up top, taken from above.

Royal House Massage, behind TukCom and next to Baan Dok Mai

Add to that the seemingly endless opportunities to people watch, especially with such an abundance of colorful participants reeling out and around the areas as the evenings progress and you have an ever-changing free show, albeit uneven and unscheduled! Come to think of it, there are sometimes promotional efforts beyond the familiar siren calls of the touts, such as the guys playing in the traffic outside Wild West Boys from last August.

If people were able to check their cloaks of anonymity when entering the more colorful areas you'd need a hat check room the size of a Big C store, but that's not the case (for a variety of reasons) so I have to conjure up a little more effort to be considerate of others' privacy while taking photos there. On my last trip I was trying to get a shot down the block of the opposite side of the soi I was on and actually had a guy trot over to me and say "no photo", pointing to the club he'd been sitting in front of, five doors down the other side of the street. I hadn't even realized it was in the shot, since it had a fairly dark frontage. I showed him a failed attempt from a minute or so before and he said "OK, sorry!" and went back to his perch.

That said, here are some photos taken in the general Pattaya area on evening walks; some new and a couple of older ones that bear repeating, in my humble opinion.

The Dolphin restaurant in the Day/Night area of Pattaya

As mentioned last Saturday I'm going to try not posting on the weekends and see if I can do any better keeping up with obligations away from the blog here. If you observe the Easter holiday in some shape or form I hope it's enjoyable or meaningful for you. See you here again on Monday.

An unusual moment of quiet on Second Road

Along Dong Tan Beach. I believe this is a repeated image, but worth repeating, I thought

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Thai Smiles, Part 32: A Video Clip

Most would agree that children are our hope for the future. Let's just hope we're instilling enough intelligence in them to undo some of the damage we've done to this large blue marble we live on. As marble games go it seems we're perilously close to being knocked out of the playing circle, but that's not the thought behind today's post so I'll gingerly step down off my soap box.

In Herb Gardner's play "A Thousand Clowns" a children's entertainer makes the comment that children are too honest to be wise, and it's something I've thought about countless times when I've observed kids in school, at home or at play in countries I've visited. There's a purity of innocence and carefree trust that's still free of the skepticism, cynicism and fear that tend to twist many of us as we're bumped around by life. Their resilience is both impressive and enviable, and I admire that quality in them.

While I'm out walking and photographing everyday life in Thailand I see children in many settings: at play with each other, sitting near their parent's food cart on the sidewalk, digging on the beach, helping a family member around their home, etc. Being the outsider and looking as foreign as I must to them it surprises me how easily they smile for my camera. Frankly, if some strange looking person at least twice my size loomed over me with a Nikon the size of a bread box and tried to get me to smile I'd probably be looking for something to strike them with, but then I've long ago lost the trust of innocent youth.

While going through images a few days ago in a somewhat gloomy mood I noted a number of them with kids in them, smiling at me from my monitor. The more of them I saw, the more my mood improved. I created a folder and began copying some of them into it, and enjoyed seeing them grouped together enough myself to figure they were worth sharing with you. The video up top was created using some of the photos. A sort of elixir for the spirit, if you will.

I hope it makes a bright spot in your day.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Isaan Odyssey, Part 18: A Morning With The Locals

About a block away from the Central Plaza mall in Udonthani is a sub soi (pictured above) that leads into a market similar to thousands of others throughout the kingdom. It may have a name, it may not; there's certainly no apparent signage and if you didn't look down the narrow soi you may well miss it entirely. Beginning around dawn - an hour some may know as "Oh-dark-thirty" - trucks, tuk-tuks and a variety of wheeled transport begin bringing in the day's produce, meats and assorted foodstuffs for the regulars who live within striking distance of the place.

A woman sets up shop in her market stall in Udonthani

If you've any history in Udonthani you probably still think of the Central Plaza mall as the Charoensri complex, as I tend to, but it's the big mall within an easy walk of the train station and the large night market I shared about two days ago.

Green onions, cabbage, basil, long beans and the likes - about as fresh as it gets

There's an obvious air of familiarity in these local markets; not only among the people who staff the stalls but between many of them and the people who shop there. It's really somewhat of a neighborhood gathering, where conversations and gossip are shared about weather, farming, TV shows, and, of course, local and national news.

The bargaining over prices isn't as colorful or dramatic as you'd see and hear at, say, Jatujak market in Bangkok - but again, people tend to know each other here.

Note the gauze and scotch tape bandage on this butcher's left hand. Ouch.

Suphot, my friend and I had plans for an outing that day, but I knew I had a few hours before my friend would arrive at my hotel and I also figured Pot was still asleep so I showered, dressed and walked the few blocks from the hotel towards the mall to see if I could get some pictures at the market and maybe find a shop selling coffee where I could sit and people watch.

Fresh mushrooms, daikon, long beans and chilis

The market was more or less already set up and buzzing by the time I arrived about 07:00; people were carrying bags with their purchases out as I was walking in along the umbrella- and awning-lined entrance soi, but the familiar sights and smells were as comforting as the Isaan music that was rising from several boom boxes; joining together as their sounds bounced off the high metal and canvas roof above.

It's times like these that I somewhat regret not investing enough time to learn (and retain) more of the Thai language, but there's the entertainment factor of being the visiting farang in a distinctly native place, too. While there are times in life where being pointed out by a group as an outsider can be a sweaty situation, this isn't one of them; I enjoy seeing people pointing me out to each other and being the novelty as the Big Pink Guy. It often provides an opening to say good day, compliment a mother on her cute baby, share a smile and take a picture - all things I find rewarding, myself.

In addition to the poultry, pork and beef for sale there's always fish and shell fish on display, too. Having some professional knowledge of food handling and preparation it always makes me wonder just how the locals manage to deal with the the bacteria (and worse) that comes from, say, fresh shrimp getting "hot," as it's known in the trade, but it's all in the genes and what their bodies/systems are used to, I know.

Fresh crab, more or less properly iced

Shrimp at what would be $6US/Kg, or about $2.75/Lb - VERY cheap.

Some of you may remember the temple offerings in Lopburi, and the pig heads that "smiled" up from their plates beneath the sticks of incense - here are some ready to dish up and take to the temple, if you'd care to.

... and chicken, ready for the grill or cooking pot...

I spent so much time wandering, taking pictures and "visiting" with people that I never did get coffee that morning, but I did get back to the hotel in time to get a little later breakfast and prepare for the day's planned trip to Phu Phrabat historical park.

That's going to be next up in part 19.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Tipping Tips: Taxis, Restaurants, Etc.

Toh-Plue Restaurant, a nice oasis in the middle of Chatuchak Market

A while back we covered tipping hotel housekeeping and other staff who make your stay pleasant. Here's the follow up I promised for occasions where you may consider leaving a tip while away from your hotel. All of the suggestions today deal with more mainstream tourist encounters; taxis, restaurants and what I'm going to call "legitimate" massage venues, for lack of a better word. I know people in the play-for-pay business, but that's an entirely different kettle of fish for a different day.

Figuring that you're likely going to find yourself in a taxi to go out to eat, let's start there: Thai will rarely tip a taxi driver as a Westerner might, but rounding up the amount on the meter from something like 35 to 40 baht is acceptable and I'm rarely taken to task by Thai friends if I offer that sort of amount to a driver. However, if a driver has taken me to or through an area where I feel he's going to be penalized - say, through a congested area to somewhere he's not likely to find another fare for his return - then I may tip them an extra 10 to 20 baht.

[As a side note, drivers will usually decline to take you someplace where they're liable to be "stranded", and if they do they're liable to give you an inflated set price, so don't be surprised. Take these only if you don't care about cost.] However, when you're carrying shopping bags and the skies open up with a downpour akin to those seen by Noah that extra cost doesn't always seem quite as extravagant. My suggestion would be not to let it upset you and spoil an evening while on vacation.

Speaking of evenings, by the end of the day (or evening) it's my guess that taxi drivers can spot the weaker of us in the herd when we're shuffling slowly along and wishing we were already back at our room, but so it goes. Frankly, when I'm on holiday my comfort isn't usually worth being stubborn about when it comes to dealing with some licensed bandit in a taxi there - I sometimes just pay it, write it off as an expense of travel and get where I'm going - but that's up to yoooouuu, as you'll get used to hearing if you spend any time in the Kingdom at all!

There was one occasion where I deliberately (and grossly) over-tipped a taxi driver, and if you would like to you can read last April's post about Te the taxi driver here. There's also a little more to learn there about Thai taxis in general that we won't re-hash today. I got a lot more pleasure out of wondering about how his evening date went than I would have spending the same amount some other way, and it's made a nice story to tell every so often.

Restaurants are another area where a tip isn't usually expected, but if you're dining at a place frequented by Westerners who do tip - such as a more upscale restaurant - it can be a little frustrating if you don't have Thai friends along who feel comfortable telling you you're being either stingy or foolishly generous, and the Thai as a rule don't go for even gentle confrontations so you may be on your own. A rule of thumb that's worked for me (more often than not) is tipping 20 baht on your dinner tab. I've had it suggested that 10% of a tab that's come to $75USD isn't ostentatious, but again, you're probably in a nicer place, too.

Tips in many restaurants are put into a kitty that's divided at the end of the shift, but there's a way around that, if you wish. For example: if your bill is brought to you in a folder, what you put inside would go into the pool. What you put on top is meant for the person who has helped you, in most cases. If there's a question, discreetly hand the tip directly to the person you want to have it.

There was one occasion where the chef had cooked an excellent meal that the inattentive server didn't bring to my table until it was nearly cold, because he was chatting with friends and not doing his job. Without making a scene (although the cook was pretty surprised to see me) I walked into the kitchen after dinner, thanked them for a delicious meal and tipped the cook. I didn't stiff the waiter, but I left a meager amount. There was a lot of Thai chatter going on among the front house staff as we were leaving - and yes, I'm aware it's possible that not all of it was complimentary about yours truly.

For those of you who are likely to have a number of massages while in Thailand - actual massages, not what's euphemistically known as "a rub and a tug" - there are again no hard and fast rules about tipping. We're certainly not talking about something as uncomfortable sounding as Main Course Number 1 to the left.

In a storefront shop where you're probably going to pay anywhere between 150 and 250 baht for a 60- or 90-minute foot/leg/shoulder massage combination (depending on where you are) I personally don't feel that a tip of 100 baht is too much, nor is 200 baht too much for a 60- to 90-minute Thai or body massage.

I'm sure some who read this will disagree with me, and any comments are welcome as to what you've tipped. Again, we're talking about a non-sexual experience.
Although the baht has become stronger Thailand is still an inexpensive place to visit, compared to a lot of other places - so again my advice would be to shop around for the bigger ticket items (air fare, hotels and tours if you must) and give yourself some leeway with the day-to-day expenses. Personally I include treating the service providers I come in contact with with some respect - and to me that includes a fair and reasonable tip, where appropriate.