Monthly Archives: April 2009

Novice Monks at Wat Chaimongkhol

Many Thai children spent their summer holidays either at summer school or, if they were a boy, ordained as novice monks at their local temple. In Samut Prakan, a number of our temples offered the youngsters a chance to ordain for about a month. I took the pictures on this page at Wat Chai Mongkhol over a period of several weeks this month. This is the oldest temple in our province dating back to 1350 A.D. As this is a prestigious temple, it also saw the highest number of students signing up to ordain at just over 250. This was the biggest ordination of novice monks that I have ever attended.

For the Thai boys, the first event for them was the haircutting ceremony. This wasn’t just a simple task of cutting off all their hair. The ceremony started with prayers and chanting. Then the abbot and a local politician, went around the room to cut a symbolic lock of hair. Then the elders in the family also took turns to cut a piece of hair. None of this is allowed to touch the floor and is collected in a lotus leaf. The rest of the hair is then cut completley off including the eyebrows. There were a couple of students from my school here and I can tell you it is hard to recognize someone when they don’t have eyebrows.

Wat Chai Mongkhol is one of my favourite temples and I often go there to photograph various events. In fact, Phra Ajarn is keen on me taking pictures and always asks for copies. He is vary good at his job and is very technology minded. This is him in this picture. The day after the hair cutting ceremony came the actual ordination. In the run up to the ceremony, Phra Ajarn gave an interesting talk about the important role of their mothers in their lives by using pictures and music to good affect. The highlight were video clips of a woman giving birth showing the pain that she went through. He then asked the mothers to sit with their sons for the last time before they were ordained. Some of the boys were overcome and started to cry.

I have written several times before the details of the ordination ceremony so I won’t go into details here. If you want more information then please visit our web site. The first half of the ceremony for novices and monks are exactly the same. However, the monks have to face tougher questioning in front of a group of monks in a sacred building. Novices can ordain in a normal hall like this one. In the middle of the ceremony they have to leave in order to change from their white clothes to the orange robes of the monkhood. That wasn’t an easy task for them to help 250 young boys get changed into a complicated set of robes that didn’t have any buttons or zippers.

The novices spent a lot of the four week period studying Dhamma, meditating and also having valuable lessons in ethics. As novices, they had only 10 precepts to keep unlike the 227 that the monks have to obey. The novices weren’t allowed to kill, steal, lie or even sing. They also weren’t allowed to have sex or become intoxicated which hopefully wasn’t too hard for them. These ten precepts are the same that lay people try to keep on important Buddhist holidays and during the Rains Retreat. In addition to the precepts, the novices had to learn the 75 training rules which dictated how they should behave in the temple and when they go out on alms round.

The young novice monks didn’t go out on the alms round every day, nor did they all go at the same time. Imagine 250 novices walking down the narrow lanes surrounding this temple. The local people would be completely overwhelmed. It was also a very tiring event for them. I know I was exhausted after we came back. I took my first pictures at 6.15 a.m. and didn’t come back from our long walk until 8.40 a.m. I am glad I was wearing shoes. These poor novices had to go barefoot. But, they did a good job and acted appropriately as a novice monk. Although four weeks is not very long, I am sure what they learned during this short time will last them a lifetime.

Cave temples around Kanchanaburi

I hadn’t been planning to go to Kanchanaburi this year, but somehow I ended up there. I was surprised to find such a laid-back, relaxed, friendly little city so near Bangkok, less than two hours away from the new Sai Tai bus station. I enjoyed staying by the river (on the river!), watching the birds, the people – and listening to the frogs all night long.

The rugged limestone mountains all over the province are a wonderful backdrop wherever you are heading, and they also hide numerous unique or surprising cave temples – not to mention the welcome escape from the direct sunlight and the merciless heat.
A rented motorcycle seems to be the best way to explore the small rural roads and temples around Kanchanaburi, as public transport is very sporadic, and many places of interest are in the middle of nowhere. The area map that comes with rentals is very detailed and useful if you have no idea what is there to see around.

First, I headed just across the river to Wat Tham Khao Pun, which, apparently, became famous when not so long ago a drug-addicted monk murdered a farang girl and hid the body in the caves. The narrow passages and chambers had also been used by the Japanese during the second world war. The grim historical background and thin air were enough to freak me out when the arrows inside the dimly lit cave pointed towards narrower and narrower sections – I didn’t find out how narrow it all gets eventually. I preferred to backtrack to the entrance, where a comprehensive collection of Buddha images, including a large Reclining Buddha, provide a peaceful haven for contemplation.
There is a mandatory donation of 20 baht to enter the caves.

Then, I headed south along the river on a rugged dirt road, heading to the most famous temples in the area, passing by huge Chinese cemeteries and truckloads of gravel and sand dredged from the river. Suddenly, out of the blue, the most amazing naga staircase appeared. I had thought that I had seen everything possible when it comes to nagas in Chiang Mai!

Wat Baan Tham temple is right on the Kwae river, the steep stairs lead to a series of small cave temples perched just inside the hill. It is a very quiet and serene spot with lots of fragrant frangipani trees and burial chedis on the way up. I wished someone could take my photo as I entered the mouth of the beast but there was absolutely nobody else around. Once inside the dragon, stories from the life of the Lord Buddha come alive on the walls. There is a charming view of the surrounding area from the top.

The cave temples at the top are very quiet and a perfect spot for an hour of meditation (and let’s not forget about the shade).

Next on the itinerary, Wat Tham Seua, or Tiger Cave Temple, is only a few kilometres away. This is the one everyone is talking about and heading to. The compound looks very impressive from a distance, you can hardly wait to see it all for yourself.

There is a large parking lot and many souvenir stalls, but for some reason it was all deserted. Maybe the Chinese tour buses hit the spot early in the morning, or late afternoon. I didn’t mind. There is a steep flight of stairs up, or an ancient-looking contraption to haul people up, which looks like it may crash any second. The famous seated Buddha greets the visitor – donations are carried up to the alms bowl by a conveyor belt. I found it noisy, pushy and just totally inappropriate that an attendant switched on the structure whenever someone walked towards the image.

Walking around, I just couldn’t put it all together. What looks great from the distance is actually a compound of mismatched buildings constructed with lots of gold and glitter but without much grace or style. Pretty similar to other prominent places of worship in Thailand that have huge Chinese donations pouring in – the Tiger Cave temple in Krabi immediately comes into mind. My disappointment deepened further when I found out that the caves were dangerous and off limits – so, this was all for Kanchanaburi’s most famous cave temple, then.

Adjacent Wat Khao Noi is a temple built totally in Chinese style, and a lot more pleasant to look at – however, close up it was completely deserted. There was a fine layer of dust all over everything, and a deep silence hovering over the compound: no worshippers, no monks, no incense sticks left behind. Maybe I had chosen the wrong time to visit? It is a mystery.

Even though it was only around 3 o’clock in the afternoon at this stage, I actually had temple fatigue. I enjoyed sitting by the river and gradually slowing down, leaving everything behind me. I realised the river is just as soothing as a temple. Just as perfect a place for all my prayers and contemplation.


I found out about Black Songkran’s showdown from Los Angeles Times website.

Here in LA, if Thailand makes the home page of LA Times it’s either a) slow news day, b) some fit really hit the shan, or both.

US news media is absolutely worthless in times like these. As I ran from the computer to turn on CNN, MSNBC, and FOX all we got was local political talking heads. CNN Headline News added insult by having Nancy Grace on yapping about something so sensationalized it shouldn’t even be news.

I ran back to the computer and fired up BBC News, Bangkok Pundit, and Twitter search for #thailand. I followed the chatters well into the night. I called it quit around 1 a.m.

I took my cellphone with me to bed just in case someone would call. I didn’t sleep much that night, and actually even had myself a nightmare.

Obviously, my nightmare was nothing compare to what people were living through on the streets of Bangkok that day/night.

But being so far away with news so few and far between because of the time difference, I’m sure many Thai expats like me in the US were worried sick. (For some reason, I’m sure CNN in Europe would pay more attention to the WORLD.)

The next morning, I repeated the drill with my internet lifelines. On my phone. At the office. I informed my boss of the situation and warned her of my expected absentmindedness for the day.

As day broke in the US, the chatters again died down. I didn’t worry any less.

My dad was okay. My brothers were out of harm’s way. Everyone I know so far were nowhere near the action.

So what am I worried about, you ask?

I fear for my country. I fear for the people.

I fear that Thailand I knew and loved would no longer exist when I woke up in the morning.

I cried for my country and my King. My heart broke as I watched my countrymen took to the streets with molotov cocktails and soldiers firing back.

Anger. Frustration. Hurt. Sadness. Anxiety.

I know these emotions well. They were cozying up to me when I knew my mom wasn’t going survive her fight against cancer.

They were the emotions of those who mourn.

Even though Thailand is still Thailand, in away She is no longer the Mother I knew.

My Motherland had died.

Perhaps She had been dead for a couple of years, but the loss wasn’t so profound until I saw the bus went up in flames and a video shot in the night of protesters throwing molotov cocktails at the soldiers and running them down with cars.

Supposedly, same blood flows through all of our veins. Supposedly, we are all of the same Father.

No more.

To be Thai, by definition of the word, is to be free.

How brothers and sisters turned against each other–not only Reds or Yellows, but also Buddhists and Muslims–we are enslaved to hatred, and in the political scene, greed.

We on the sideline only could watch from the far tower as our brothers and sisters figuratively–and literally, come to think of that–burn our country down.

Nothing much we can do but watch.

And pray.

English Language and Tourism in Thailand

When I first travelled through Asia I remember thinking that it was lucky that I spoke English as my first language. I noticed that English was being used as the way to communicate between backpackers of different nations. For example, a German would speak to a Frenchman in English. When I stayed in guesthouses it was always useful for me to chat and share information with fellow travellers. I also found that many locals also spoke English. At least the ones that I came in contact with. In China I had many people come up to me to either see if I needed help or just to practice their English. It was much the same in Pakistan and India. Then later, when I was in Malaysia and Indonesia, I also didn’t have much of a problem. Naturally I made an effort to learn some of the language of the countries I visited. But, I could always fall back onto English.

That all changed when I first arrived in Thailand. I wasn’t approached so much by English speaking local people. I also found it difficulty communicating at tourist attractions and on public transport. This is not to say that there weren’t any English speakers. But, they were either very shy or spoke English with a bad accent. In fact, it could almost be guaranteed that if a well spoken Thai person came up to me in Bangkok, that person would be trying to scam me. Many Thai people either don’t speak English or are never forward enough to make the first move like this. I always found it funny that many Thai people would either cover their ears or run away if I attempted to speak English to them.

Compared to neighbouring countries in Asia, Thailand has always had a poor record as far as English language instruction goes. I guess they have a slight “disadvantage” in that they have never been colonized by a European country. However, in this global market, it is very important to speak English in order to do business with foreign countries. Although English might not be the most widely spoken language in the world, it is important as a medium of communication between nations. However, English is hardly ever used or seen in Thailand. It is true we have more now than before, but the quality and quantity is still limited.

Sometimes on national television or radio we get some news broadcasts in English. However, their English is often very poor. Apart from their unusual pronunciation, they often make grammatical mistakes. This is excusable at local level but not on national television. I have also seen over the last few years some documentary programmes on television with English subtitles. This is obviously a good step in the right direction. However, it often doesn’t make sense and I have to listen to the Thai instead in order to make sense of what is going on. Then there are the spelling mistakes. We have all seen them. You would think they would at least use a spell checker when writing copy for an advertisement. It is rather silly to spend thousands on an advertisement in the Bangkok Post only to have bad spelling.

I personally think that the Thai government did a poor job in supporting and helping foreign tourists in Bangkok and Pattaya during the recent red shirt protests. The television channels also handled it very poorly too. I had the television on all day and every day for the four or five days of protests but there was hardly any information in English. Imagine a tourist in a foreign country and you see that the army is out on the streets and that there are thousands of protesters. Where can you get information? If you are in a five star hotel then you probably can watch CNN or BBC. But for others the Thai terrestrial channels were of little use. I don’t expect them to give long translations. Sometimes the pictures talk for themselves. However, some of these pictures of the soldiers firing straight ahead were scary. Why couldn’t they have done some captions in English with breaking news? To find out what was going on, the tourists had to find an internet cafe.

Thailand makes a lot of money from tourism. It is in their own interest to not only encourage more foreigners to come to Thailand but also to make their stay here a little easier and to run smoothly. That way they might become repeat tourists. So, it would make sense to advertise in English the new tourist attractions and upcoming festivals and events in Thailand. However, in my opinion they do a very poor job of this. Take the recent OTOP in the City event which the government organized. The majority of the promotion was in Thai despite the fact that foreign tourists would be just as interested in this event to buy locally produced souvenirs and handicraft. When I contacted the promoters they promptly sent me a press release in the Thai language. When I asked for an English press release it took several phone calls before they finally faxed us a shortened version just a few days before the event. As if English was just an afterthought.

Even the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) is guilty of not providing enough information in English. Take their website as an example. Although I am very grateful about the amount of English they do have, it is nothing compared to the Thai version of their website. Take the pages for upcoming festivals and events. According to their website there are only 25 events scheduled for April this year. However, if you switch to the Thai version you will see that there are 135 events listed! I did ask a TAT official about this once but she just said that foreigners are not interested in local events. I disagree. I find many of the smaller events far more fascinating and rewarding. Anyway, if they have the information already, how much does it cost them to have it translated into English? That way it would be our decision as to whether it would be worth going or not.

They also need to pay more attention with their website making sure it is kept up-to-date and is accurate. Sometimes they only post details about an annual event just a couple of days before it starts. That isn’t much help to tourists planning their holidays months in advance. If it is an event that happens every year then there should already be a summary. Then there is a problem of people entering the wrong dates on the website. I recently went to a fruit and food festival in Nakhon Pathom after checking out their website. When I got there I couldn’t find any festival. I rang the TAT hotline straight away to confirm the dates. It took a while for them to find an English speaker, but they were finally able to confirm that the event was happening on this day in front of the chedi. They didn’t believe me at first that I was there already and that there was no festival taking place. Luckily I didn’t bring a tour group.

I am also grateful that there are many brochures in English for tourist attractions around Thailand. However, when I ask about information for some of the less well-known provinces in Thailand I am told that the brochures are only in Thai or that not many English versions were printed. This is another problem. What if you have already been to Thailand and want to see something different on your next visit? How do you find out about some of the smaller attractions? A couple of weeks ago the TAT announced that they have just released a series of cheap guidebooks for tourists in Thailand. Sounded good. I rushed out to buy them only to find that they were only in Thai . The same goes when I turn up at tourist attractions. I ask for a brochure and many times they only have something in Thai.

A few months back I attended a tourism seminar for travel agents and travel writers from around the world. For a few days they showed us around Nakhon Ratachsima Province and then on the last afternoon we attended the seminar in order to give feedback. One of the main complaints from the people was the lack of English at tourist attractions. Not just the brochures but also signs and information boards. A museum that we were taken to had exhibit signs in Thai for 90% of the time. Which was strange as they were charging foreigners 300% more. I could understand the extra charge if they had to pay someone to write all the English for us. Then there are the shows at the Crocodile Farm. Again foreign tourists are charged a lot more but as the show commentary is only in Thai we don’t get any value for money.

At the end of the seminar, local hotels, tourist attractions and tour operators were invited to set up tables so that we could all see what there was on offer in Isaan. Guess what? We had a hard time finding any information in English. Even a book about Isaan launched at the event by the TAT was only in the Thai language. Sometimes it looks like they are trying to make our job harder. We are trying our best to help promote Thailand as a safe and friendly tourist destination. However, it is often difficult for us to find the information that we need at a time when we need it. Things are getting better but, for the sake of tourism in Thailand, it needs to be happening a lot quicker and more across the board. Otherwise tourists will start going to more English friendly destinations like Malaysia, Singapore and India.

How to cook… Stir-fried Bitter Gourd and egg

Today we are cooking a stir-fried dish with bitter gourd and egg. In Thai it is called “phat ma-ra sai khai”. It is another one of those simple dishes that doesn’t take long to prepare or cook. In the ingredients shown below, you can see two eggs and sliced bitter gourd.

You need to prepare the bitter gourd first by washing it and then slicing it in half lengthwise. Remove and discard the insides and then cut into slices like in the picture above. Heat some oil in the work and then add the sliced bitter gourd. Cook until it becomes tender. Season with light soy sauce and oyster sauce. I only had normal soy sauce so hence the darker look. Finish by breaking the eggs into the wok. Give it a good stir until the egg is cooked through. Come back next week for another recipe at The archives can now be found at which has been updated with all my food blogs.