Saturday, November 28, 2009

banking in the elephant

Yesterday I walked over to the bank on Phahonyothin Road. Lauchie's branch is pretty easy to find. It's the one in the elephant building and there aren't many of those around. This fellow towers over the traffic and can be spotted for miles.

Friday, November 27, 2009

plant envy

The Chatuchak Park complex is the green space just beyond the overpass. X marks the Sun Tower office complex where Lauchie worked for a several years.

Looking southwest.

Before I start waxing on about plants and gardens, I need to put things in perspective. Clicking through the last few pages of this blog, I see that my bias is building a very unbalanced image of Thailand. You might be beginning to think the place is full of gardens, clean open spaces, sea views and historic buildings. I need to set up this post with some urban context. The photos above are taken from the top of Lauchie's building in Lat Phrao. Skyscrapers as far as the eye can see. To get a feel for the density, go to this map and scroll around. Imagine deafening traffic sounds and a beating hot sun reflecting off of every surface. Parks are few and concrete is the hands-down winner in the most acres covered category. Despite the heat and pollution, the plants struggle up through every gap in the pavement and with the slightest bit of encouragement they can produce magnificent blooms. Yesterday I strolled through Chatuchak Park and marveled at the tropical plants. The variety and hardiness of these growing things is incredible. Too bad I can't take these back and make them work in Zone 1.

Several Parks make up the Chatuchak Park complex. And yes the water really does look that brown.

I know it's ho-hum for you southeners, but It's always a bit mind blowing for us snow people to see houseplants turned into bedding plants.

A curtain of aerial roots hung down from the branches of this tree.

The graphic and fragrant Frangipani.

Long suffering Bougainvillea thrives everywhere.

These three plants must be the holy triumvirate of the tropical landscaper's toolkit. Every boulevard seems to sport a swath of it. The dark green one will grow over anything, turning vertical concrete into living walls.
Here they are set out as a border.

And here's the green one trained into a topiary elephant.

What in the heck is this? The fruits looked liked cannonballs...

and it had long strips of buds on scary looking branches.

The downside of all of this tremendous growth is the leaf matter which falls constantly. (Just think of it Dad, raking season never ever ends.) Parks employ armies of sweepers who constantly clean up after these messy trees and beat the jungle back into submission.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

teak talk

Abhisek Dusit Throne Hall

The Dusit Palace was the destination for yesterday's tourist outing. Before I hit the streets I joined my friends Mike and Bon for a thai breakfast. They treated me to "Jok". This Thai version of congee, is a rice porridge mixed with ginger root slivers, pork sausage and spring onions. You can customize your bowl with crunchy crackers or toppings of youtiao (salty chinese donut), pickled pepper, or soy sauce. You can further beef up the breakfast by stirring in a raw egg which cooks in the hot broth like an egg drop soup.

The palace is actually a compound of several royal residences which are now used to showcase thai artifacts and royal memorabilia. The artifacts were not well edited or classified which made me feel like "the royal collection of knick-knacks" was a more appropriate title. Some buildings were piled with bunches of unrelated and unlabeled stuff, everything from rare ming vases to a royal sony clock radio. Each item stored and ready to be pulled off the shelf in case old uncle Pong dropped around for a visit.

The highlight is the Vinmanmek Palace, the largest golden teakwood mansion in the world. King Chulalongkorn (son of Mongkut, the ruler in the King & I) had the building dismantled and rebuilt on this site in 1900. It is described as having been built in European Style but the interpretive signage and tours were scant on details. The buildings are decorated in ornate carved gingerbread and are painted in candy colours which gives them a victorian feel. I think if it was unpainted it would look more like a traditional thai teak building. The photo ops were few and far between as they demanded that bags and cameras be locked in cabinets before entering each and every exhibit. Armed guards kept an eye out for rule breaker types so I kept my camera under wraps for most of my visit. I was disappointed to find out that there were no royal white elephants in the elephant stable. Bummer. You can go on a virtual tour here.

And I was dying for some background on the royal collection of vintage VW microbuses. They have 6 of them lined up and ready to go. Is the king a hippie at heart?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

in & out. chop, chop!

KL, I hardly knew ye.

I could be accused of being a little too lax in my travel preparations. I hopped on the plane last month and breezed into Thailand without too much thought about details like immigration and tourist visas. Consequently, when I looked at the stamp in my passport, I realized that I was only chopped in until the 22 of November. I wasn't too concerned. On other visits I have dealt with overstaying my welcome by paying a small fine upon departure. Alas, I was behind the times. This method is now frowned on and I had to find another way to extend my visa. Marvelous and magical things can be done with passports in Thailand. Sometimes the passports mysteriously find their own way across the borders but after some consultation with the pros, I decided to use the tried and true approach. I flew down to Malaysia, turned around and came directly back to Thailand and got stamped back in for another few weeks. It's a rather carbon unfriendly way to do it but it was fast. It's the first time I have been issued boarding passes for both the outgoing and the return portions of my trip at the ticket desk. The gap between arrival and departure was so tight that I walked directly back on the plane and did not even sit down in the departure gate.

I regretted not making an attempt to get in town to see a few sights. Just being in the airport brought back a flood of memories about Malaysia. A glimpse of the Petronas logo and I was instantly transported to a meeting I had with the company's promotional group. I was part of a team working on a Natural Gas exhibit and we met in the old Petronas building (the construction of the new towers was just starting at that time) and the clients were sitting with their backs to the window. My view through the window was filtered by an arabic screen of a geometric pattern. Throughout the meeting a helicopter repeatedly buzzed the building. I thought I could see a man dangling from a rope ladder. I later found out that they were filming one of the jackie chan Super Cop movies. It amazes me to think that I didn't find the helicopter stunts very unusual. I guess life was sufficiently strange at the time. Men hanging off of helicopters was par for the course.

While running through the KL airport I snapped the Selangor shop with a nod to my pal Susan. You'll notice there is a christmas tree displayed in the a full-on Muslim country. I think that's pretty tolerant.

The writer of the Shrimp and Petroleum Blog provided a detailed driving guide for Malaysians. The guide is equally applicable in Thailand. My thai taxi driver had turned his cab into a mini shrine, lining the front dash with religious relics, stringing good luck charms from the visor and plastering the ceiling with prayer cloths. Unfortunately the coconut elephant he had occupying the left hand side of the dash did not make it into the frame.

Friday, November 20, 2009

bay of dragons

The strings of rocky islands reminded me of swimming dragons and surfacing sea creatures.

The light air in Phuket was not kind to our sailing ambitions. When the forecast calls for gusts of 4 knots, you know it is time to go to plan B.

We decided to feed ourselves to the monster known as the Phuket boat tour trade. Everyday, thousands of people chug out of the ports in the Andaman Sea, each in search of a tropical vacation experience. Phi Phi Island is one of the most famous ports of call but we were reluctant to choose it. We stayed in Phi Phi almost 20 years ago, before the small island became heavily colonized with resorts. At the time, the place was a Gilligan's Island sort of a spot. We had a basic bamboo beach hut which was equipped with a squat toilet, a cold water spout and a generous supply of biting insects. I had never traveled so far from home and everything had the sparkle of adventure. One night we took a long tail boat from our beach to the little cluster of food stalls near the main boat dock. The bright moon illuminated both the corals below us and the limestone cliff face towering above us. We seemed suspended in air as we cut across the flat calm and watched the swirling phosphorescence beneath the boat. We wanted to leave those memories undisturbed so we booked a speed boat trip to the coast of Krabi instead.

The spectacular cliffs of the Phang-Na Bay have been attracting tourists since 1975 when 007 chased villains around the flower pot islands in "The Man with the Golden Gun". Enroute to the islands, my personal geologist gave me a refresher course on the Karst processes which gave the topography such drama. The rock may be water soluble but it does seem to be impervious to the great tourist hoards and is just as spectacular as it was 20 years ago.

The challenging cliff faces attract climbers from all over the globe.

Geologists from Nova Scotia are pretty keen on them too.

The bamboo fence marks the perimeter of the exclusive Rayavadee Hotel. I notice that their website does not show the string of boats and the mob of tourists that crowd their beach. Must have been an oversight.

Susan have no fear. As always there were lovely things to eat. Several floating food stalls were anchored at Railay Beach and they could whip up a plate of pad thai and a banana shake for $3.25.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


Looking west toward Ao Chalong Bay

Say it like pooh bear would...poohket. Not the other way. We flew down to the island of Phuket last Wednesday but I have not been able to do any posting. The internet connection at the hotel is not robust and I've been slipping in and out of contact like a sunbather dipping in and out of a pool.

The 2004 Tsunami brought infamy to Phuket. While the memory of the devastation is close to the surface, the island has recovered and the tourists have returned. We are camped out at the quiet end of the island, Cape Panwa, far from the crazed beaches of Patong. From our balcony we have views of the bays of Ao Chalong and Ao Yon and we have been filling our days with sailing and lounging. Well, Lauchie has also spent a lot of time complaining loudly about the 33 degree (Celsius) weather and I have been ignoring him.

Longtail boats are common in Thailand. Huge car or truck engines are mounted on the stern and a propellor is attached to the engine's drive shaft. The sputtering prop kicks up spray giving the boat a very long tail.

Boats are blessed and spirits are honoured with scarves and flowers draped around the prow.

Orchids grow easily in this sultry climate and they are abundant enough to garnish the most lowly of beach bar drinks.

Yesterday we watched this white fuffy cloud boil into a squall in a matter of minutes.

Friday, November 6, 2009

up, up and away

My inner pyro did a small dance of joy when I realized my stay in Thailand would coincide with the Loy Kratong Festival. I missed the lantern toting ghouls of Halloween and the bonfires of Guy Fawkes day but I knew I would get my fix of flame during Loy Kratong. It's meant to be a fun event and like many other autumn festivals around the world, it involves fire and light. At the center of the festival is the ritual launching of Kratongs which are small floatable banana boats elaborately decorated with leaves, topped with flower offerings and a lit candle. Rumor has it that lovers who launch a kratong will not float apart. Rivers and ponds all over the country become launch sites and are transformed into twinkling seas, alive with tiny flames. Kratong design and construction has changed with the times and at one time the lowly banana stem base was replaced with hi-tech styrofoam. The green movement has spurred a reversion back to the more environmentally friendly materials and kratongs are now made from everything from biodegradable paper to bread dough.

Another popular activity is the launching of Khom Loys or fire lanterns. These cool little guys are self-propelled hot air rice paper balloons. The fuel ring is lit, the air inside the balloon is heated and then pffft....lift-off. These beautiful lanterns rise silently and slowly skyward, wobbling up into the night. On Loy Kratong evening we joined a crowd of Lauchie's co-workers and drove up the Chao Phraya River to a riverside restaurant for the celebration. I had a front row seat for Khom Loy launching. As beautiful as they are, I can't help worrying about the danger of their landings. I shared a table with a fellow from San Diego who just marveled at this dangerous practice. Only in Thailand they say, only in Thailand.