Friday, July 29, 2011

Young Lovers 2: The Taxi Guy And His Boyfriend

To put the snipers at ease: these are not the actual subjects of my post today. 
Deciding to be mildly daring one afternoon I grabbed my camera and climbed the stairs to the BTS station near where I was staying at the time.  Buying a ticket to the end of the line I made my way up onto the platform and got aboard the next train; taking it over the Chao Phraya river and past the Krung Thon Buri station to the (then) new Wong Wian Yai BTS station.

I'd done no research on the area whatsoever so had no idea what I'd find there, but I know a dentist in the Thonburi area and I figured I could always call him if I really ran into a problem, so I thought I'd just go with the flow and see what happened.  Leaving the station I made mental note of some of the taller buildings around me for reference and then set myself on a course away from them.

I spent the next four hours or so happily lost.

Wandering around what seemed like several miles - but was in reality no more than a dozen blocks in any given direction - I stopped numerous times to sit and people watch, take pictures or just rest.  It was a fine afternoon, but I was still at my furthest point when my recently injured knee began to remind me that it was still in charge, and having long since gotten out of the line of sight of my reference buildings I was soon hobbling in what I figured was the direction of the Wong Wian Yai station.

At a corner of one of the intersections was a small canopied stand that served as a motorcycle taxi station for what I assume was a rotating bunch of guys.  There were eight or nine of them sitting there in their bright orange vests; either on some nearby steps, one of those ubiquitous plastic chairs that may well be holding half of the Thai population at any given moment, or on their cycles.  Most of them were chatting amicably, a couple reading the newspaper, several smoking - and two younger guys off to one side, talking to each other.

Of the two, one of them hardly looked old enough to be out of his school uniform. The young man next to him didn't appear to be much older, but he wasn't a driver. Dressed in snug jeans he wore an equally snug black tee-shirt, decorated with small rhinestones in the pattern of a rose.  His hair had been bleached and carefully coiffed. The two of them were talking softly and smiling, leaning towards each other, almost forehead to forehead.  Hoping one of them was indeed a student that might speak some English I asked them if they could point me to the BTS station. Immediately several of the other bunch there perked up, anticipating a fare.  The orange-vested half of the couple didn't understand the question, but he caught that I wanted to go somewhere. He stood, picked up his passenger helmet and held it out to me.

"No, thank you," I said, mimicking a person riding a motorcycle "No motocy, mai ow, thank you. I'm walking to the BTS."  He looked a little puzzled, and another driver clarified my clumsy reply for me from his seat at the stand, and then as an afterthought added "He's busy now with his boyfriend, anyway!" and a couple of the other guys laughed, saying something in Thai that I couldn't understand. The young driver and his friend dipped their heads shyly and smiled, so I took the comments to be just gentle teasing and not mean-spirited.

Although I sometimes feel a little silly talking in the broken English that's often better understood there I gestured at the one in the black tee shirt and asked the youthful driver "Boyfriend you?"  He dipped his head again and nodded "yes" and I smiled back.  He thought a minute, then pointed down the street to my right, held up his fingers - one, two - holding his hand sideways with a chop to show two blocks, then a point to the right again and a couple more motions to direct me to the station.

"Thank you," I said, reaching into my pocket for one of the twenties I'd stuck in there after getting a soda a few minutes earlier.  Handing it to him I leaned in to the two of them and not wanting to say the "G" word just said "You have boyfriend? Mai pen rai... it's OK." Pointing to my chest I said "You, me - same same - it good!" and I gave them the thumbs-up gesture, smiling at them.  The other drivers laughed at my comment to them, but laughed with us, and not at us.

I asked if I could take their photo, and they agreed, posing somewhat like the two guys in the photo up top today.  One of them wrote an email address on a piece of paper I gave him and I emailed them the photo a couple of weeks later.

My knee had decided to give me a temporary reprieve, so I turned and headed in the direction my never-to-be-seen-again friend had suggested and made my way back to the station, the train, and home.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Thai Smiles, Part 38: Schoolgirls At Rama II Park

Although there were several class groups at Rama II Park the morning we visited I seemed to bump into these girls in the dark blue uniforms the most.  There was a busload of them, and they moved about in knots of four to twelve; answering questions in their theme booklets as they stopped at a display case, tapestry or statue.

Between buildings they posed for their each other's photos and were gracious enough to pose for me, too.

The duo to the left were holding their hands and forearms up to imitate the chang (elephant) topiary they were standing on either side of, and they giggled while they posed for their friend.

Evidently they had assigned items to address, and they worked together as students will do in study groups.  Most leaned over and used the wooden floor as their writing table, but a couple of times I saw one sitting on the floor, bent over to write on the floor while another used their back as a somewhat unstable desk. They talked among themselves as they worked, but for the most part they remained on task.

Although I ran into some of the same girls twice I was wary of being seen as the perhaps shady Big Pink Guy following the schoolgirls around. Somewhat of a sad commentary on the level of some adult tourist's behavior, I think, but the brush used to paint the ne'er-do-wells is a broad one I'd rather avoid being mistakenly painted with.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

More About The Rama II Park In Amphawa

The mid-day sun can turn these beautifully crafted walkways into griddles

Unless someone can provide a compelling argument to the contrary I'm going to say the best time to visit sites in warmer and/or humid climates is in the early morning or later afternoon.  Not only is the light usually better for photographs, but the temperature is much more to my liking.  Some folks adore the heat and direct sun of mid-day, but personally I fall into line with Noel Coward and his opinions in the old song "Mad Dogs And Englishmen" (you'll find my 22-8-10 post with song and lyrics if you click the link).

By the time we'd covered most of the Rama II Memorial Museum and Garden park it was past noon, and the song was running through my head while I moved as quickly as possible along the beautiful wood walkways that had now grown extremely hot for we tenderfoot farang.

Naturally,you took your shoes off at the foot of the stairway to each building out of respect, and the finished wooden walkways up in the sun may well have been hot enough to cook an egg.  I took most of my photos from a shady spot, where I could bear to stand in one spot long enough.

Even the student field trip groups were staying in the shade as much as possible.  Part of this is to avoid having their skin become tanned or darker, and part of it merely for comfort, as I was doing. They each had an theme-type booklet that they were writing in as they sat on the floor in front of the many displays within the museum, but they didn't waste much time getting out of the sun, either; and their steps increased while getting from building to building on the "heated" walkways.

There were so many things to see, and so much of it that visitors are asked not to take photographs of, so you're just going to have to make a visit yourself to see the costumes, ceramics, ceremonial furniture, intricate teak carvings and other items that belonged to Rama II and his family.  One room that was open housed a collection of traditional instruments, and I did photograph those. The stringed instruments are called jakay, the circular grouping of small gongs is a khon won yai, and the wooden xylophone is a ranat ek. As usual, be advised that transliteration may make the names slightly different than other sources.

There is a video clip of these instruments being played at the Bang Pa-in Summer palace in Part 3 of the Isaan Odyssey series.  Click on the Part 3 link above to see that clip.

One last photo here today - not because it's any great shakes as a photo, but the hanging below was made from what we more familiar with Hawaii would call "crown flowers'; used in many native lei and decorations.  I've seen them different visits in Thailand, but this particular day I was thinking of someone who has passed on to another life that loved these flowers, and as I was thinking of him I looked up to see the hanging (below) above my head.  I guess it's posted here today more for me than anyone else, but indulge me, OK? Thanks.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Rama II Memorial Museum and Gardens, Amphawa

Two photos joined to show a small portion of the buildings at Rama II Park
The first morning I awoke in my riverside bungalow in Amphawa I lay still for a few minutes, listening to the sounds of birds and insects as slivers of light came through the space between the shutters on my windows.  Nearing me from upriver came the soft, rhythmic sound of water quietly splashing, and I turned to push the shutters open above my pillow and saw an older woman, slowly paddling her way downstream beneath my window.

A women paddles her way to the morning market in Amphawa, Thailand
Following breakfast my friend said he wanted to take me to Rama II park; an expansive lush and well-maintained garden area with large teak buildings that houses a museum, historical murals, photo exhibits, and a small gift shop. As you'd expect there are also places to get cool drinks and things to snack on.

The gardens also feature many finely crafted statues that represent folklore and religious tales.  It shows on most online maps and is easy to reach from anywhere in the small city of Amphawa.

The well-groomed grounds between the multi-level, tidy teak buildings.

Admission was next to nothing, and it's a wonderful spot to wander a couple of hours and soak in the beauty. I'll post more about it tomorrow, if all goes well.

Monday, July 25, 2011

HM Bhumibol Adulyadej - The King As A Younger Man

His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej (also known as King Rama IX) hasn't been granting audiences or appearing in public for a couple of years, with rare exceptions. At 83 years old there is concern among his subjects about his health, and photos of him are also rare.  The photo below is one of the "approved" portraits of the beloved monarch, but today's photos are of the man in more vibrant and youthful times.

The photo up top is a more candid glimpse of him from several decades ago, and is probably my favorite picture of him. The quality of the images is a little off because they're my pictures of pictures, taken at a display at the Rama II Summer Palace, now a lovely park in Amphawa. The images at the display concentrated more on the 1950s and 1960s, and the quality of the originals left something to be desired due to enlargement of the snapshots, etc.

Nevertheless, they're a glimpse of a man enjoying life - such as the moment right after their wedding, below -  and I thought they were worth passing along today.

More about Rama II Park itself next time.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Life On The Waterways Of Bangkok

Having spent almost all of the past two days sitting in waiting rooms of a hospital I was flat out of inspiration to prepare a post when I arrived back home near dinnertime today.  My family member is going to be OK, thank you, but that still left me short for a story.

THEN... as I was checking email and a forum or two I run across a clip re-posted by a friend of mine that he'd found posted, and voila... something worthwhile to share with folks who don't frequent said forums.

These two clips are among the better available on YouTube, and they show what it might have been like to be on a riverboat on the Chao Phraya river and assorted waterways in Bangkok in the mid-1960s. I'd give my eye teeth to be able to go back the 45 years and see this myself.

This first (up top) was tagged as being from 1964, the second (below) is said to be of footage taken in 1966.

So a tip of my e-hat to my friend for bringing these to my attention, and enjoy the clips!  Back on Monday.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Amphawa Night Market Pictures: Longer Exposures

The view from a footbridge over the canal, showing shops, boats and evening visitors to the market.

Ever since I first started taking pictures I've been interested in images that are out of the ordinary.  My first camera was my mother's boxy, simple mechanical-shutter Kodak Brownie camera that you loaded with spools of 620 film (when you could afford it - and the subsequent processing and printing fees). To a child it seemed to be half the size of a loaf of bread; too big for small hands, and you looked down onto a postage-stamp-sized "viewfinder" to compose your picture, leading many people to often take snapshots that featured very small people nearly lost in an extensive background, at an angle 30-degree off level.

As a rare treat while on a family vacation I was allowed to try that camera for the first time at around age 10. I took three or four pictures at my Grandmother's house and then pestered my folks mercilessly until they'd finished the roll and sent it in to be processed and printed when we returned home.  The day it came back I was most interested in one particular picture where I'd opened the shutter twice - and there were two somewhat blurry images of my cousin, Steve.

The relatively still water of the canal around 21:00

If you did a fast-forward another 10 years or so you'd find me experimenting with my father's 35mm Nikon, the first "real" camera I'd ever had a chance to play with, other than 126 and 110 Instamatics.  Black and white, color, Kodachrome, Ektachrome, ultra violet - I gave them all a workout. Since then I've continued to feel more of an affection for the unusual image, although I don't usually post many of them here.  The last four or five Thailand trips have found me feeding my current passion for longer exposures using available light, and that's what you're seeing here today.

One of the small hives of activity that grew at the bottom of each set of canal-side stairs

What I enjoy most about them is the way they usually include movement and still elements at the same time, and the colors are often not what they'd be during the light of day. I understand they're not everyone's cup of tea so they're not a regular part of the blog, but I'm usually pleasantly surprised to see the results and share them, so I hope you'll enjoy them, too.

After the shops have closed it gets very quiet along the canal

These longer-exposure images were taken at the Amphawa Evening Floating Market; most were later in the evening when things had gotten quieter. If all goes well I'll post others soon from other spots in Amphawa that are away from the market itself.

Longtail boats on the market canal, lit by the shops that line the waterway

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Thai Smiles, Part 37: The People of Amphawa

The "peace" sign from one old enough to remember when it was really in vogue.
I received an email this morning from regular reader Frank who wrote he hoped I wasn't going to run out of "Smiles" photos any time soon and asked if it wasn't about time for another batch of them.  The answer both questions is yes.

Unless I keep taking regular jaunts to Thailand my supply of smiling Thai photos will run out at some point - but not for a while.  As for the "isn't it time" question - I'm always ready to see smiling faces. That's why I go out of my way to take them - not only to be a pesty tourist.

In going through photos for the Amphaway getaway posts I found another batch, so here's Part 37 of the series - and thank you for writing!

A young man selling BBQ shellfish and squid along the canal
Happy portrait of a young man with his mother. They were selling snacks at the evening market.
This woman was just taking a break between customers at the side of the canal in Amphawa.
This family was posing for my friend, but I took a shot, too.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Amphawa: More From The Floating Market

BBQ shellfish and Chai tea for sale from boats along the steps in Amphawa
Yesterday you had an overview of the Amphawa Floating Market, and today you'll see some of the carts, stalls, boats and items for sale at this laid-back Thai tourist spot.  I say laid-back because it was unhurried, generally polite and less crowded by far than the behemouth that is Jatujak market.

With the exception of a few alleyways and other points of entrance and egress (like the alley to the left, where I wandered off from my friend while he was parking the car) it was easy to navigate, browse and people watch.

Again, you'll see very few farang and not much English in the signage, other than brand names and other related advertising, such as a restaurant sign or an ad for lodging.

There's enough English spoken that a Western visitor shouldn't feel uncomfortable being there taking pictures, trying to buy something or dining in one of dozens of restaurants, so don't let that keep you away from this satisfying experience of semi-immersion, unless you're clumsy on the stairs to the khlong and end up in the murky water, and that would be total immersion.

A good number of the items were "same same" as you'd see in most other open market areas, but there were subtle differences. For example, there was more packaging in Thai, and things like the sweets below (an uncommon item to begin with, as the Thai don't consume candy like we in the West do).

Packaged candies by the cartload

Above is another look at yesterday's BBQ muk, or squid (ika, to my Japanese readers) - and while it was good, I have a difficult time getting past the sometimes rubbery consistency of it. When it's dried and sold with other fish - as in the photo below - I have trouble getting past the strong fishy taste.  Not a favorite of mine, either way.  Many of my friends don't feel it's a meal without a muk dish, so I usually make a gracious effort to join them when it's offered, but more often than not I beg off with the "gosh, everything was so good I'm just too full!" ploy.

The  chompu/chompoo (Rose Apple) is a common fruit in Thailand; available almost everywhere, year 'round.  I think they're a good substitute for an apple, myself.  I like apples to be crisp, and I'm often disappointed by the ones brought in that I find in the stores and markets there.

A fruit vendor arranges red chompu on his boat, stopped at the Amphawa Floating Market

The Rose Apple has an inner center that's usually best scraped away, and can have a bit of a bitter aftertaste, but the fruit can be easily washed off, making it a safe thing for those of you wish sensitive systems to eat.  Plus, it gives your system a little fiber and some liquid.

A woman selects rose apples to purchase from a boat in Amphawa

Next time, more from the market.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Amphawa: A Floating Market Without The Farang

Looking up along the khlong at the activity slowly building at the Amphawa evening market

There are several differences between the floating markets of Bangkok - either of the two main spots - and those in a somewhat more rural setting, such you'd find around Amphawa, a couple of hours outside of Bangkok.  While Amphawa also has the more utilitarian, ingredient-based morning markets where locals buy produce and everyday items, they also have a rather extensive one that's open in the late afternoon and into the evening.

Bangkok gets the buses and tour groups of farang and Asian visitors; Amphawa gets the Thai who are seeing a break from the hustle and bustle of the city, or from life, who knows. I spent a few evenings at the main "tourist" evening market, and a couple of mornings at the much smaller klong markets where the locals stock up.  As you can see in the lead picture today the evening market canal area was lined with souvenir shops and restaurant after restaurant in addition to the flurry of activity along the wide canal, but I saw very, very few farang. It was a refreshing change, and another glimpse of Thai life.

It was crowded, but not opressively so; you could move through the crowd and get to what you were trying to see without have to wait and worm your way in.  The people seemed to be in a more relaxed mode than I'm used to in the Big City there, and I (being farang) was again an oddity.  It's not a place to visit if you mind a few people looking at you as if you've just beamed down from another planet.

Some may remember this as the lead image from the very first post here, back on March 22, 2010

The first evening there my friend couldn't find parking he liked, so he dropped me off to wait near a street leading to the main canal while he went to look for a spot to leave his car.  Naturally, I started looking around and taking pictures and wandered off towards the canal, into the flow of people looking, snacking and shopping.  15 minutes later I felt a tap of my shoulder and turned to see my friend, smiling at me - but with a slightly strained smile; that "you weren't where I left you to wait" look.  "Sorry," I said, "I just got carried away in the current!" "Don't worry," he assured me, "You're a foot taller than the rest of the crowd so I could see you - I just couldn't catch up with you!"

As the market gets going in earnest near sunset people are ready for dinner, and the food boats swarm in like mosquitoes, although the boats are far more welcome.  You can see in the pictures above the stone steps leading down to the water's edge, and long boats set up for cooking are lined up along each set of steps.  The steps themselves are large enough to serve as steps and seating, most deep enough to hold a shallow table, like the ones below.

People sharing dishes while sitting on the stairways down to the water

Sometimes there's a rush of activity; like when a group is getting their food all at once (below) but more often than not it's a steady stream of people stopping to look, venture down the stairs for a sample or to place an order, and some socializing by the boat people themselves, who all seemed to know each other. Dishes were sometimes passed across a couple of boats to get them to the person who'd ordered it, and it reminded me of handing a hot dog along to someone at the ball park here at home.

Thai tourists receiving their dinner orders aboard their hired boat.

If the khlong had an odor to it it was overpowered by the variety of smells that rose from the BBQ grills, steamers, boilers, woks and griddles that added the aromas of cooking rice, shellfish, squid, fish, vegetables, eggs, chicken, and way too many different dishes to count.  The temptation was to just pull out a bullhorn and say "OK, one order of everything", but that'd be wrong on several levels.

I sampled what I could, ate more than I should have and consoled myself that I'd already had many of the dishes being offered and we still had another couple of nights to come back.  The squid at the top of the photo below didn't do much for me, but the eggs were delicious.

The old saying goes "everything tastes better cooked outdoors," and there's something to that, I agree. There's also something about local produce that was picked that day, or shrimp like the ones below that were swimming along and minding their own business hours before.

More about the Amphawa market next time.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Amphawa Accommodation - Ban Kung Maenam Home Stay

Ban Kung Maenam Home Stay, from a boat on the Mae Kong river

It was early afternoon by the time we reached our destination of Amphawa, the reasonably quiet town that straddles some of the final stretch of the Mae Klong river before it empties into the Gulf of Thailand.  Since he'd wanted to surprise me my friend hadn't told me much about where we were going for this getaway, but now that we were within a few kilometers he wanted help watching for signs to help direct him, so he tipped his cards a bit.

With almost all of the signs in Thai I wasn't all that much help at first, but he wrote the Thai name of the place on my notepad while we were stopped for a cart loaded with coconut hulls to move off of the roadway ahead of us, so I could at least try to match the Thai word (and I did). When he pointed to a sign ahead instructing us to turn left he cried "Aha!", and four or five turns further into the dense green trees and growth there was a small sign identifying the Ban Kung Maenam Home Stay, and in we went along the dirt driveway. There was covered parking beneath a green overhang, and my friend pulled in and shut off the engine.

Opening the passenger door I was stuck again by the tranquility of the Thai countryside; the sound of the door itself opening being the loudest sound within earshot. By comparison the door noise was a shout above the whisper of the trees moving in the breeze, and I stepped out and just stood for a moment, listening.  Trees moving, yes; joined by the odd insect buzzing around, a distant machine of some sort, the occasional dog bark nearby and some talking and some sort of scraping sound coming from the direction I guessed was our guest house.

Leaving our stuff in the car for the moment we walked over a small galvanized pipe bridge with a plank walkway that spanned a small khlong that meandered through the shrubbery, fruit trees and palms. As we neared the resort itself I could see workers constructing a small addition to it; the foundation and most of the walls in place. They were adding cinder blocks onto a wall in progress, and the scraping sounds I'd heard were the metal trowels on the blocks as they removed the excess cement and smoothed the seams. Being on task they didn't notice us walking by, and we went into what I'd supposed was the reception area but was, in fact, the owner's home.

A woman welcomed us and spoke to my friend in Thai. The reservation was under his name and yes, our bungalows were ready.  We were given our keys and then walked along the wooden plank walkways that stood a couple of meters - six feet or so - above the water level of the river, with quite an expanse of steep, soft mud between walkway level and the water.  "Ah, low tide?" I asked, and yes, it was.  The level moved not only with the waters flowing from the North but also with the tide in the gulf, some three miles (6Km) downstream.

Some of the bungalows, seen from the resort's pier. My bungalow was at the far end.

The walkways creaked slightly as you moved along them; trees and shrubbery sticking up above anywhere it had a chance to poke through. Small creatures went about their lives along the river bank, like the small crabs below, who were rarely more than a blink away from their burrows.

Rather like a mother who will eat the overdone portions and leave the best for her family, my friend is somewhat of a mother hen; a quality I usually find endearing. He'd handed me a key as we walked along, knowing full well it was the nicer of the two bungalows - at the end, and sticking out over the river with the best views. His was next door to mine, and still had a nice view of the river, of course... but I was over the water, most of the time.  Lovely while I was there, but during the extremely rainy season it might get a little close for comfort.

My bungalow - the stuff a wool-gatherer's dreams are made of.

The room was clean and tidy, but very very basic by Western standards. There was a bed, a small vanity and a hong nam that wasn't much larger than needed to be able to open the door into it.  The room had places in it near the ceiling where geckos could come through and call to each other with their distinctive "chik-chik-chik" cry, waiting out of sight but nearby, hoping for a mosquito or other bug to come within their reach.  The windows didn't have screens on them, but the sheer curtains served as a mosquito barrier, and I didn't leave them open at night.

I've stayed in rooms 50 floors up in my lifetime, but the views from my windows here are the ones I remember best.  The one below is from one side, showing the bathroom window, the one below that is from the other window, looking upriver, and the last one is across the river.

While my friend napped in his bungalow I rested a bit in mine and read a little until the light began to turn that beautiful golden orange as the sun dipped below the tree line across the river.  I got up, took my bottle of water and sat in one of the wooden chairs on my deck while the sun set.

My friend joined me as I was sitting there, and I thanked him, both for picking this spot and the chance to relax and unwind after a trip that had been rather hectic up until that point.  "Just what the doctor ordered," I said - using a phrase I wasn't sure he knew, but he did. "Of course," he said "I am a doctor!"  I laughed, swatting at a gnat that had been circling around me. We sat in the comfortable silence friends develop over the years and watched the sun set.

When the mosquitoes came around to defend their turf we left for dinner and a first walk around in town.  More on that - and the resort - in the next post.