Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Elizabeth Taylor 1932-2011 RIP

Elizabeth Taylor was an actress, and something of an icon. I remember her from her role as Cleopatra, starring opposite the great Richard Burton, who portrayed the flawed, great Mark Antony so well. She was always there in my life, no longer. RIP.

Monday, 21 March 2011

On the Buses--how to make your next bus ride a total success.

Departing the Rangong terminal
at night, in the rain.
My life.
Bus travel
I will confess that I do not like flying, thus I am ready to take a 12 hour bus ride rather than spend an hour in a plane. There are advantages to this other than the avoiding of the flight itself. Have you taken a flight recently? Security! Multiple recursive hassles. Lots of high school educated goons in uniform wasting your time. Carrying a full compliment of gear, as I do, which includes pointy things, even a knife, leads to questions--and if you forget to stow something you should have, it is gone with the wind.

The thoughts and advice here are largely based upon my experiences in Thailand, but they do have an universal appicability.

My VIP Ranong to Bangkok bus.
Late at night, another lonely journey
from A to B.

Get your ticket. Pick a good seat if seats are allocated. Not too close to the toilet, which will be found at the back of the bus. Not to close to the tv (noisy). The middle is good.

Be early
On the bus,
VIP buses usually have a cute hostess.
Get there early. Leave for the bus early. Things go wrong. Delays occur. Factor some lead time into your planning.

Tag you bag
Put a tag on your bag(s). Certainly your big bag, which will go under the bus. Also your smaller shoulder bag. A tag with phone, email and a pic. Have all of these and the chances of retrieving your bags, from a rare occurence of trouble, will be maximized.
The Ranong province bus station.
On the eastern edge of the town.
A standard, functional design.

Local bus = 2 seats
Usually, in Thailand, there are 'VIP' buses cruising between provincial capitals. These buses have comfy seats, suspension which suspends, and even supplied food and water. As a rough guide a VIP bus will set you back 100 baht (~us$3) per 100 kms, so not pricy. A trip on a VIP is no great hardship.

This rosy picture changes when we move to 'local' buses. Local buses come in all shapes and sizes, but they are cheap, noisy and bumpy, and no aircon.

In this situation I invariably buy two tickets for two seats. This means I can carry my shoulder bag with me easily, and stretch out comfortably. Local buses are cheap. Maybe half that of VIPs.

my ticket.
VIP to Bangkok
Krung Thep: City of Angels,
the greatest city in the world
Check to see if your guest house sells bus tickets. Many hotels/guest houses do so, and this usually entitles you to a ride to the bus station. In small towns the bus might even come to your hotel. Talk about service!
VIP bus, a free freebies
snack, water, blankee.

Background to all this is standardized packing. Figure out the most efficient configuration for you and your stuff. Then stuck to that. This way you will know where your gear is and be able to quickly obtain the same. .

On the bus:
- Reading material, obviously.
- Neck rest, the inflatable kind.
The interior of the Rangon bus terminal
at night.
Cool pic ?
- Ear protectors. This might seem excessive but local buses are very noisy. Even VIPSs clock in at 70db.
 - Water. VIPs supply you with, but I always keep my canteen filled jic.
- packet of tissues.

When you arrive at your destination alight promptly and grab your bag. When you leave your seat always look behind just in case you left something behind. To err is human.

Written on my iphone in a bus traveling from Ranong to Bangkok.

Enjoy the ride.
The loneliness of the long
distance single bus traveller.

Takuapa—a small town in the south of Thailand.

Takuapa—a small town in the south of Thailand.
tourist map of town and area.
As regular readers of my blog will know, I have been busy over the last week or more, what with visiting archaeological sites in the north of the southern Thai province of Phang-nga. Three sites in particular, which I have now visited and revisited several times, however, I thought that I should spend a little time talking about the town which I am using as a base. This is the town of Takuapa (“Dow-gro-PAR”), in Phang-nga province.

destinations at the station.
 This town is one of those places which requires serious thought to identify in any way. There are a hundred other identical towns in Thailand, ‘average’ is the word which applies, however, it is not without its own charm and it can be a pleasant spot in which to spend a few days. 

bus station.

Takuapa stretches along the main highway, maybe 3 kms and 2 streets back. On either side of this not extremely busy road are restaurants, shops, a few hotels, and people. On the eastern side of town is the bus station, which has a market next door. At the town centre is the city administration building, along with a few other government services, and a park with a statue to the Hindu god, Pra Narai, in his Thai Buddhist interpretation. Apart from showing reverence by worship, which happens fairly frequently, people also let off firecrackers. This last may seem strange to westerners, but lighting firecrackers has a deep spiritual significance, and it is also a lot of fun.

city hall.

a local bus, at the bus station.

the district legal office, nice job.

Pha Narai, in town centre.
A millennium ago this area was an important land route across the peninsular on the southern silk road. A century ago tin mining and rubber plantations were the backbone of the economy. Now a little tourism from the surrounding beaches and misc services.

Town council.

tuk tuk

local post office send me a postcard.

Steam engine from a ship wreck.
Not that many attractions around.
I spent 10 days here, a long time. I got to know a few locals, if not well, at least by their attitude and personality. The ‘little old lady’, who cooked my omelette with egg, and a side of rice, most mornings. The good ladies in the ‘Dream Cafe’, the best cafe in town with fast internet and tasty coffee. My tuk tuk driver, Mr Wattana, who drove me around, over charged me when I let him, but also gave me good advice on how to get to where I wanted to go.
Will I return to Takuapa? Most probably not, but it was a friendly stopover, which I shall always remember.

Dream Cafe.

My hotel. 'Extra Hotel'

sleeping my way to my next destination.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Khao Phra Narai—The first stop along the Thai Silk Road.

13th March 2011

Google maps link to my map of this area:

8.773 N 98.4164 E
Pronounced “Cow Phra Nar-EYE” (as an Australian would say it).

map of general area.
A thousand and more years ago Khao Phra Narai was one of the stopping points on the overland route across what is now the Malay peninsular of the Thai Silk Road. Then, but not now, this route was a busy section of the long journey between Europe and China, with high value goods making the year long journey between east and west.

This stopping point is marked principally by the foundation stones of a small temple on a hill overlooking this area.
The Hindu Temple area.
The Temple.
The archaeological site of Khao Phra Narai lies approximately 20kms to the south east of Thung Tuk, as the crow flies (do crows fly in a straight line?), or, as I estimate, ~30kms distant along the winding Takuapa River. It is located in the Lae sub-district (tambon), district of Kapong, Phang-nga province, on the Takuapa River. 

This spot was the first stop for merchants and sailors as they navigated down the river on their way to the east coast of what is now Thailand. This location is a convenient stopping point, as it lies just down from the junction point of two canals, which together form the Takuapa River. There is a line of sandy beaches with a convenient, flat ground here, ideal for R&R. 

First view of the beach,
the hill behind contains the ancient shrine.
To reach this point I hired a tuk tuk, driven by a Mr Vitanni, for the ride there and back. After some conversation it was concluded that Mr Vitanni knew just where to go. So off we went. The first part of this journey was the easiest, a ride in his tuk tuk along highway 401, in the direction of the small town of Kapong, however, we stopped short of this town and turned into a small Hindu Shrine on the river. 

This area was almost certainly the spot, where a thousand years ago, the barges carrying goods down the river would have stopped for the night. One can imagine dozens or even hundreds of workmen, sailors, merchants, adventurers and explorers, in this area, eating, drinking, perhaps with female companionship, singing, resting and generally readying themselves for the day ahead. 
This area, as far as I can ascertain, has not been excavated for archaeological remains, yet, I am sure that a metre or more down there waits to be found a great deal of material, the debris of centuries of commerce. 
The Malaysian folk explore the river.
As we arrived at the temple there was a Hindu ceremony underway. I later found out that the people here were from Malaysia, apparently there is a measure of interest in Malaysia concerning this site, presumably, largely from Malaysians of Indian descent. After the ceremony concluded I chatted with these Malaysians, who were interested to know of my interest in the archaeological site. I also spoke with the Hindu priest, little did I know that he was something of a celebrity. His photo is in the book Thung Tuk, taken at the site of the temple on the hill, pg. 113. His name is Mr K.D. Mishra. 
K.D.s Hindu Temple, which houses a statue of Ganesh, is relatively small, however, he wishes to build a new and larger temple at this same location, and he is receiving some support from Malaysians. Good luck.

Having crossed the river,
glancing back to the original shore.
We ascend !
This part of the climb had a
narrow track.
K.D and myself walked down to the beach on the Takuapa River and looked up at the hill top. This is where things got interesting. To reach the hill from the temple involved first wading across this river. Not as arduous as it sounds. The river here is no more than 50cm deep, and maybe 20m wide, the current though was surprisingly strong (to me at least). Before doing so I bundled my iPhone and camera in their respective plastic bags, just in case. I was sure that I would be able to survive a splash into the water, but not so much them. Then we waded across. 

Panorama at the top.
Centre is the site. Small, with an annoying tree.

A minor piece of excitement was the appearance of a wild elephant, though it did not seem that wild, it merely stood in the water for a while enjoying the coolness. There were some children in the group of Malaysians, who came to the beach with us, the children were very happy to see the elephant.

Next the truly fun part, climbing the hill. There were partial paths to the top, but not all the way, we had to push our way through dense foliage, and it was a steep ascent, however, no danger, just find your footing and take it easy, as always. It took only 15 or minutes to climb, yet it was tiring, the heat, humidity, the tropical dampness. 
At the top.
My guide Mr M.K.
shows me the site.
The remains of the shrine are small in number and scattered, however, it is possible to glean the overall design. 

What is left is a square outline, composed of bricks, ~4m on a side, of what was the foundation of the base upon which the statue of Vishnu once stood. There is evidence of a central dais. This area is overgrown with shrubs and weeds, obscuring the shrine. The photograph in the book Thung Tuk pg. 113, shows the site cleared (2009), and the shrine much more discernible, not so now.  As at Thung Tuk, centuries of neglect, and most likely generations of looters, have led to this ravaged state. Also, apparently from an invading Burmese army. Thung Tuk mentions this invasion, but does not give a date. Possibly this was the Burmese invasion of 1785. 
The shrine, as far as can be determined is oriented north-west — south-east, with the dais on the south-east side. The hill top is small, maybe a dozen metres across, from where it begins to slope downwards.
My guide, M.K. told me that there were many shrines on the top of this hill. I could not see these, but there were two trees a few metres to the north of the primary site. Around the base of both were heaped piles of stones. Some of these stones showed clear signs of water erosion, thus most likely brought up from the river below.
This is it.
The front brown area is the dais(?).
Around are semi-buried and overgrown bricks.

Central dais section.
As it is now, nothing of the surrounds can be seen, neither the river nor the lands below, however, most likely, when, from Thung Tuk, convoys of barges set sail, the top of this hill was kept clear by the people passing through.
Some of the brick fragments.
At this point, time to return. As always, for me at least, going down a hill, is a bit trickier than going up (something I think about when ascending), however, going down this hill was not too bad. Lest anyone think that I am a wuss, what I am really thinking about is the time and inconvenience of an injury. The pain is easily dealt with, but the time and effort wasted just getting back to the point before the injury is what really hurts. 

Looking across the shrine.

When I returned to the temple, I found a retired Thai banker waiting to talk to me. This gentleman had been educated in England, in the banking business, had worked in Thailand, but now was retired. His name is Mr Nirat Boonsoong, and in his youthful retirement years he is devoting his efforts to restoring and protecting this site, as well as building a museum to house artefacts and to exhibit the history of the area to locals and to visitors. He estimates that he will need 400,000 baht (~us$10,000) to do this. This money will have to be raised by himself and his working committee as the provincial government is not in a position to help. He spoke good English and was clearly interested in the history of this section of Thailand. We spent an hour or more chatting, most pleasant.

Mr Boonsoong

He was agreeable to having his contact details listed here.
Mr Nirat Boonsoong
PO Box 3
Phang-nga Province,
If anyone wishes to visit this site or to learn more, or to even help, please feel free to do so.
M.K. and my tuk tuk driver Mr Vitanni.
After this, tired, a little bruised, with wet MBTs, but with a camera filled with photos and a log book filled with scribbles, I returned to Takuapa and my hotel for a well deserved rest.

Khao Phra Noe — A hill by a river.

Is that a cool pic or what ?
Khao Phra Noe — A hill by a river.
14 March 2011


The map,
showing immediate surrounds.
Our boat, no, the small boat.

Google maps link to my detailed map of the site:

View of hilltop
from centre of the river.
This archaeological site is on the mainland, immediately opposite Thung Tuk. It consists of the remains of a small temple atop a small hill. From the hill top one can enjoy an excellent view of the surrounding landscape to the west, and the Takuapa River mouth, which, a thousand years ago, would have been a hive of activity, with ships and commerce from all corners of the world filing the harbour. 

View of Takuapa River mouth from hill top.
whoossh, and away.
This temple was most likely built as a religious ‘good luck’ charm, and as a ‘signpost’. For centuries, ship’s crews arriving and departing for destinations both east and west would be able to look up and know that they were not alone in an often hostile and lonely universe. It also aided in navigation, giving ship’s captains an additional marker to steer by.

The hilltop can be seen from across the bay. Visually, it is backstopped by a higher, darker coloured mountain behind, enhancing its visibility. 
For myself, to reach this spot involved much discussion and planning. Apparently, there is no road route to the hill. With the help of the Fine Arts Dept. book Thung Tuk, I managed to explain to my tuk tuk driver where I wanted to go, who then decided to talk to his tuk tuk mates, and then a number of other locals, in order to put my journey together (this was an official Lost in Translation moment). 

We finally determined that we would travel to a village on a river tributary, and from there take a small boat, approximately 2kms to the hill itself. On the drive to the boat we picked up a man who was the local village headman, a Mr Kamon (as his name transliterated into English), who had been seconded to aid me in my search for the site. As he spoke no English, and my tuk tuik driver knew only basic English, we never really discussed anything of note, however, he got me to the hill top and back.
The hill.
Note the distinctive tree atop.
Easy to spot from the river
So—we reached the village, we embarked (that is to say, myself, the boat driver, and the local village headman), on a small wooden boat (I believe referred to as a ‘long tail’ boat), and travelled approximately two kilometres and 20mins, where upon we reached our landing spot. 

I will say that the view along the river was superb. The water, the green things growing on the side of the river, the blue sky (a somewhat rare near cloudless day). Of course there was the small draw back of the very loud boat motor, which I clocked in the high 80s decibels. The journey out was smooth water, very pleasant, but coming back we experienced some chop.

out landing site.

The landing site was at the end of a narrow canal inland, at a very small beach. We disembarked (not quiet as easy as it sounds). Then the Mr Kamon and myself began walking (our boat driver stayed with his boat) towards the hill. At first we walked over level ground, the hill itself is set back maybe 250m from the shore. Then we reached the hill. 
The climb to the top was not too difficult, but it was tricky, steep in places. Just take it slow and easy, watch out for the spiky plants, and crumbly soil (much of the soil on the western facing side of the hill was crumbly). Let me add though, it was a hike. The day was hot (no cloud), it was humid (the tropics), the air was damp (tropical jungle), and add the previously things listed. It all added up. 

My guide, Mr Kamon,
the village headman.

When we reached the top of the hill, ~15 minutes, we saw a central, flat area, with, what looked to me to be, a brick path running northward down the hill. This path was the major and essentially the only man made item on the hill top. There had been a statue of Vishnu present, but it had been removed in 1927 to Bangkok. I surmise that the path was the official or ceremonial route to the top. Most likely, in the old days, the hill top was kept clear of foliage. I am not sure why we did not take this route, but we did not.
Your route to the top. Only 50m high.
We spent over half an hour on the hill. I was snapping pics, wandering around with my gps, and generally recording stuff, while my companion Mr Kamon, took a few pics of me, watched me wander around, and took a swipe at the plants which had overgrown the site. Two or so years ago, when the archaeologists visited, they cleared the site, however, in the intervening time nature had won a lot back. 
The hilltop.
The flat area is where Vishnu once stood.
The brick path is straight ahead,
where Mr Kamon is sitting. 
I estimated the clear area on top to be ~4m on a rough square, there seems to have been a constructed based here, approximately 1/2 metre of the foundation was visible on the western side, upon which the statue of Vishnu would have been placed. The path downwards was on the north-east side of the hill top. The bricks were rather large and well made.
After our time at the top we started back, essentially a repeat of the journey outward. As always, going down is trickier than going up (something I always think of when going up). An hour later we were back at the village. I paid the boat driver the agreed upon figure of 600 baht for his time, ~us$20. Not sure if I was ripped off, but I suspect, if I was, not badly. In comparison, the ferry across to the island of Ko Kho Khao can be booked for 2,000b for one hour! Pang mak as we say in Thailand.
The path downwards.
Closeup of the brick work.
What can I say I learnt from this trip and this site? In a way not a lot, however, seeing an archaeological site gives one a conceptual understanding not easily attained otherwise. Also, it brings home the effort involved in the original construction. We, or at least I, tend to say ‘a small temple’, and these are in truth small, however, think of the effort, time and resources expended in producing these constructs by a low tech culture. The Vishnu statue was fabricated in India, and then shipped 2,000 kilometres eastwards. How difficult would it have been to build this path and platform, and to convey this statue to the top of the hill—a monumental effort indeed. 
I certainly recommend the experience to anyone interested. A day well spent.