Last year I was on the road or in the air quite a bit, away from home for almost six months on various jaunts, flying more than 60,000 air miles and missing my own little bed, so this year I hope to be a bit more sensible … and I have only one major jaunt in the pipeline for later in the year.
But my nomadic heart does not let me be a total home boy (and I am too staid and too old to be a Homie), and after a couple of months at home, I recently set out on a bit of a road trip for two weeks covering about 2300 km and visiting six or seven places – and all but one of Bangkok’s forty-nineteen elevated expressways – more of which anon …
The journey was not all that long – 2300 km is about equal to three return train rides from London to Paris, or a drive from Chicago to Los Angeles … or a flight from New York to Havana in Cuba and a bit of the return journey … before plunging like a fizzled-out CIA missile into the Bay of Pigs.
The en-route scenery is rarely the reason people drive in Thailand as motorways dominate.
There are roadside stalls selling all sorts of things – concrete Buddhas and bunnies, hammocks and sugar cane stalks, carved granite mortars and pestles, giant red roosters, baskets and bonnets of all shapes and sizes and even more Buddhas, and multi-coloured kites for flying over your young rice fields to keep the birds away. There are even stalls selling concrete models of Aphrodite rising from the seas in case you need one to grace the entry to your new home.
At Nakhon Sawan, my first stop on the journey south, I came across a naked young man squatting in front of a black plastic and blue-striped-canvas squat: his “home” did not need an Aphrodite but he probably would have enjoyed running water, sanitation and electricity. There is not a lot of homelessness in Thailand – compared to many other countries – but it exists and so do beggars, destitute people, and those any county of over seventy million people will have to care for – in some way.
Nakhon Sawan exemplifies the wonderful mysteries and miseries that the Thai language has for non-Thais. In the Thai alphabet this city of about 115,000 people is spelled NKRSWRRD … with the D having a special symbol to show that this letter is not actually pronounced after all …
NS (OK – NKRSWRRD) is a lovely little city sheltering under the wondrous Wat Phrachulamanee, and built at the junction of three rivers – the Ping that comes from my hometown of Chiang Mai, the Nam and the Wong. These three rivers, once joined, become the mighty Chao Phraya River that runs down to Bangkok and pours into the Gulf of Thailand. In theory, I could hop into a canoe near my apartment, and paddle to Singapore. The lovely Lake Boraphet is the heart of Sawan Park and NS City, with a 3.3 km jogging and cycling and walking path around it. Morning Tai Chi classes, numerous stationary exercise machines, basketball and badminton and boule courts allow visitors and locals to enjoy their exercise … knowing that the Sri Sawan Hospital and the Paknampho Hospital – two very modern hospitals – would battle the cholesterol from the Dunkin’ Donuts and KFC at the nearby The Walk shopping mall.
My dinner in NS was a healthy serving of deep fried chicken and a G&T without the tonic as there was none to be found in the whole province. G & Coke is an acquired taste. My hotel, the JK Paradiso Hotel with its wondrous in-room LED lighting, its mini bar with sixty baht packets of condoms and sixty-five baht toothbrushes may have reflected its proximity to the Dionysus Club, with willing and able maidens and an energetically enhanced Johnny Walker statue just a few metres down the street.
Chug a lug. Zomm zoom zoom in my little Mazda and onwards …
Ayutthaya is one of Thailand’s former capitals – sacked – as were many sites – by the nasty Burmese of whom we can only say Boo Hiss. Well – Thailand also sacked nearby Laos and Cambodia of whom we can also say only Boo Hiss … and even today there are continuing border / temple / armed conflicts between Thailand and Cambodia:
- This sacred site is ours!
- Nope – it’s ours!
- OK – I defy your god to beat my god to prove that it is so …
- Do you want swords or sacred scripts at dawn …?
… and on we went.
I have visited Ayutthaya several times and it is a superb UNESCO historic site, but this time, as I was pedalling my little bicycle here and there among the chedis and wats and elephants and very helpful and very friendly and very heavily Glock-armed Tourist Police, I found an old chap who told me to pick up my bicycle and to cross a ramshackle timber bridge over a canal to visit another wat or two.
Over the bridge I chatted to an elderly monk from Wat Kudithong who was repairing the old timber bridge. On this very rare occasion I think I had more Thai language than he had English language, and judging by the number of nails he bent as he hammered the old timbers I think he would perhaps benefit more from woodwork lessons than from English lessons.
On the way back to my hotel I took several side roads, found myself at the Chao Phrom Market Pier where for five baht (or ten with a bicycle) the ferryman would take you across the river. Fortunately, the ferryman was not named Charon …
One of the reasons for my journey to the coast was to revisit the superb Chan naturist resort (www.chanresort.com) near Jomtien beach, and to visit for a first time the new Phuan naturist resort about twenty kilometres further south along the coast.
In total, I had about a week of lolling naked by the pool, quaffing naked bacon and tomato sandwiches for breakfast, enjoying naked massages, riding my bicycle to the beach where I could strip off my shorts and quietly swim au naturel in the sea … and go for (fully clothed) morning jogs and tumbles with bloody elbows, bloody knees, bruised hips and bruised egos as I discovered that Thai footpaths are not really jogger-friendly …
Near the Chan Resort is a cabaret place – the Coliseum.
In Pattaya there is the Tiffany cabaret show, which I think is a bit better than the show at the Coliseum, but both are fun, with elaborate settings, superb glitter and feathers and push-up bras and sequinned costumes and forests of long long legs, as the all-male cast lip-syncs and struts its way through a series of numbers designed to appeal to the Chinese and Korean and Japanese members of the audience. As an old theatre lighting / setting designer, I was wowed by the technology and by the advances in lighting that has occurred in the last ten or fifteen years.
And the girls were pretty amazing too.
But I did not pay THB 20 or THB 100 or whatever it cost to have my photograph taken with the girl with the most feathers, longest legs, biggest bosoms, smallest costume afterwards.
Oh dear me: missed opportunities for fame!
Requiem for a Maestro
For many years I have enjoyed the annual Pro Musica Ensemble (www.promusica.com) at Chiang Mai’s Four Seasons Resort. This year I was in Pattaya when the quartet performed in Chiang Mai but I learned that they would also be performing in Hua Hin while I was in the general area. It is only a four-hour drive from Pattaya to Hua Hin, so I set my sails, typed in the GPS directions to the Dusit Thani hotel, and zipped up the gulf, through the edges of Bangkok’s crazy traffic and down the coast again to Hua Hin – originally a royal seaside “get away from it all” place where the Maruekhathaiyawan Palace built by King Rama VI was also a favourite of our late King Rama IX.
HE Admiral ML Usni Pramoj was one of the founding members of the 1958 ensemble that grew to become in 1975 the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra. I had met him many times in Chiang Mai when the ensemble performed at the school where I worked. ML Usni died last year and Tasana Nagavajara, now Artistic Director for the group, dedicated its first 2018 concerts to the memory of a fine musician, composer and statesman, and led the group in a superb performance of Requiem Without Words, arranged for strings and based on Mozart’s unfinished Requiem.
It was a fine performance, although the Dusit Thani’s presentation was far inferior to the evenings at Chiang Mai’s Four Seasons concerts, where white tie and tails were the norm for the performers, elegant gowns and silk jackets for guests, and yum yum yum drinks and nibbles were served before the concert and during the interval. But I did enjoy three days at the Dusit Thani resort, jogging past the stables and swimming in the huge pools each day, and having Room Service deliver smoked salmon and fresh carnations in a silver (OK – chrome) bud vase.
It would be easy to say that it was anticlimactic to climb into my little car and head home after the sunny naked days and the thrilling strings of the Pro Musica Ensemble, but Darling Doris made it anything but dull.
- Head North West … then turn left
I had reluctantly accepted some of the things people have taken granted for years, and had Mr Google and his talking maps installed on my telephone. The voice was that of a very patient, well modulated, and slightly confused Ditzy Doris.
I know it cannot be much fun being locked forever in a small telephone, released – genie like – only when someone types in a new address and asks for directions. Doris was pretty good most of the time except for occasional moments of insanity:
- In five hundred metres turn left … then turn right
These instructions usually came after a quiet period (poor girl must have been getting bored) and usually when I was on an elevated motorway thirty metres above a sprawling suburbia. Had I turned left – or right – I would have launched myself into the air only to land in someone’s spicy tom yum goong (spicy prawn soup). Instant indigestion all round.
Heading north from Hua Hin was easy – just go north.
But as I entered the maelstrom of Bangkok’s elevated motorways and fly-overs and spaghetti junctions and toll ways and multi-lane highways and congested traffic and with no paper map to hand, my dear friend Doris intoned:
- GPS signal lost. Maps not responding
Oh super. The damn girl could tell me when to exit a roundabout in remote Lopburi with only two cars, a buffalo cart and three motorbikes to distract me, but suddenly goes off air – perhaps to have her hair styled or to have a back massage or simply to have a bowl of noodles – leaving me hurtling along a multi-lane highway with no idea where I am going.
On a family holiday when I was a small child, my father drove us across the Sydney Harbour Bridge three times trying to find our destination. To be fair, GPS navigation and mobile phones at that time were about as common as jewels in an Ethiope’s ear – but this month I managed to plod my way somehow through the highways and on to Lopburi … where I refused to heed the directions given to me by a resurrected Doris.
Yes – once I had clawed my way out of Bangkok’s eleven million people and eighty million cars and highways, the feckless biddy came back on air:
- In three hundred metres … (dramatic pause) … at the roundabout … (dramatic pause) … take the third exit
- In two hundred metres turn left
Well, at the two hundred-metre mark there was no road but a bit later a narrow laneway appeared but it was the wrong laneway as I found three times, with three circumnavigations of King Narai’s statue at the roundabout. I could almost hear my dad’s laughter as he saw me on the final loop.
Lopburi has some interesting historical ruins – good old King N’s palace, various temples and so on – but most of then are overrun by aggressive and nasty monkeys: Lopburi is known as the Monkey City. I think I’d rather be known as Plague City.
I dislike monkeys (and gibbons and orang-utans and baboons and lemurs and chimpanzees) and refuse to accept that we may all be related and so I did not spend much time fighting off flea-bitten rabid animals to explore any of the temples or places in Lopburi.
A Wall of Diamonds
Kamphaeng Phet is a few hours north of the rabid animals of Lopburi and did not have a single long-tailed monster to disturb my early morning swim before a repeat visit to the superb UNESCO-listed old city whose name in Thai means “Wall of Diamonds”. I never found any gemstones, but the ancient temples and walls and monasteries are wonderful and gems in themselves.
I think Kamphaeng Phet is actually a more interesting historical site than Ayutthaya or Sukhothai, both of which are much larger.
As I parked my car and dragged the bicycle out, I heard many cars beeping their horns and thought they were being very friendly and saying “Welcome to Kamphaeng Phet” to me … only to find that I had parked near the City Pillar and that motorists were BEEP BEEP-ing as they went by to pay their respect to the city gods – sort of like a Drive-Thru McDonalds – offering a pray-as-you-go option, without any French fries.
I rang my bicycle bell and headed north, stopping for a quick meal somewhere, and found a cluster – a gang? – a bustle? – a mob? – of Harley Davidson motorbike drivers having a break.
Harley Davidson bikers have evolved over the years.
Once they were fightin’, punchin’, pissin’ anti-social nasties. Now they seem to collect Christmas presents for the needy and probably offer destitute nuns warm soup on cold days.
One biker had a leather jacket bearing the frightening logo of the Black Rabbit gang.
Yes – I can accept perhaps the Black September gang, or the Black Panther gang, and even the Black Gangsta gang … but Black Rabbits? I am sure this group is involved in multi-racial good works for vegetarians.
As I drove north, the bunnies and the panthers passed me. In a 90kmh zone where I was sedately motoring along at about 95 or 96 kmh the bikies zoomed past in a blur of noise and leather-fringed jackets and 120kmh brrraph and into the distance somewhere. Perhaps they are all now at Mother Jessica’s home for Fallen Women and Faded Gentlemen.
But now I am at home and no more (for a while) exorbitantly expensive boozy Sunday brunches, no more naked poolside sunning and no more endless kilometres of concrete motorways … until next time … but I am going back to Bangkok next week to meet up with a much-loved old friend … so we will see.
Journey January 2018
Text and photographs © Christopher Hall 2018
Photo of cabaret girl and Chan Resort from Internet
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If a man ascended into heaven and gazed upon the whole workings of the universe and the beauty of the stars, the marvellous sight would give him no joy if he had to keep it to himself. And yet, if only there had been someone to describe the spectacle to, it would have filled him with delight.
Attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero – On Friendship