Monthly Archives: January 2010

Thai Navy Memorial Day

Today marks the 69th anniversary of the battle with the French on 17th January 1941 near the island of Koh Chang. In dispute were some of the territories in Indochina that Thailand wanted to claim back. Although the Thais fought bravely, they lost two torpedo boats and the warship HTMS Thonburi was badly damaged. Thirty six Thai soldiers and sailors also lost their life in the battle. The HTMS Thonburi was later salvaged and repaired by the Japanese. It later saw life as a training ship. Today the bridge section and the front guns can be found at the Royal Thai Naval Academy where it was set up as a memorial for the brave soldiers and sailors that died defending Thai sovereignty.

On Sunday 17th January 2010, Navy Commander-in-Chief Admiral Kamthorn Pumhiran presided over the wreath-laying ceremony and the merit making ceremony in front of HTMS Thonburi at the Naval Academy in Samut Prakan. The event started with wreaths being laid by representatives of many Thai ships and organizations.

Then nine monks led the chanting in order to gain merit for the Thai servicemen that died during the battle. Attending the ceremony were some of the survivors of the battle and also families of those that lost their life.

Finally, the Admiral laid his own wreath which was followed by the call of a bugle and a minute’s silence for the dead. A similar service was held at Koh Chang Naval Battle Memorial in Amphoe Laem Ngop in Trat Province.

You can see many more of my pictures of this event at www.paknamphotos.com and also a video at www.paknam.com.

Thai Visa Run in Vientiane, Laos

Well, about a few weeks back it was my turn, the first in years actually, to do a visa run to Vientiane, Laos. And I did the visa run on my own and not with some over-priced Visa Run trip company.
Thinking back, the last time I had been to Vientiane was just a year or so ago, that time with a buddy of mine who was looking for someone to accompany him on his visa run trip.

My first venture over the river into the Land of a Million Elephants (compare to Land of Smiles) was way back in the days of 1996 when the only known traffic congestion in the capital was caused by too many half-defunct rusty bicycles breaking down at the lights. And compare these examples for tourist-development: in those days the scenic village of Vang Viang, 3 hours north of Vientiane, was home to 3 or 4 guest houses and a single tin-shack that sold jars of Beer Lao in the evenings. Since then though, Vang Viang has turned into Laos’ equivalent of Khao Sarn Road. Then, in those “good ol’ days”, the only way foreigners were permitted to travel to Luang Prabang was by a pre-packaged airplane tour – now there are air-con buses with bus-hostesses handing out assorted cakes and blaring out the latest in Thai pop music. I doubt that any other country (besides perhaps Cambodia) in the region has developed so quickly over the past decade or so.

Back to me trip info. My first mistake on the visa run was in taking the bus from the Morchid Bus Terminal in Bangkok to Nong Khai on the border. Arriving at the Northern Bus Terminal rather late-ish, I bought a ticket for something like the 9 o’clock departure. Having read up that the trip by bus was around 10 hours, I basically calculated that I would be arriving in Nong Khai at say… 7 in the morning – just in time to have breakie, cross the border and get to the Thai Embassy for opening. Absolutely not – instead our bus driver, thinking he’s Michael Schumacher, decides for himself that we are all in a desperate rush to get to our destination and rips the distance in no time – didn’t even bother stopping for supper (a norm on over-night buses). We arrived at more look 5 in the morning and it was friggin freezing by Thai standards – worse luck was to come, when on shifting through my bag, I finds out that I had forgotten my jacket at home. Shivering away, I could do nothing but twiddle me thumbs and sip hot coffee for the next hour or so before heading to border.

I advise therefore, to sod taking the bus to Nong Khai and instead a train which arrives after daybreak. The train station is also closer to the border (Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge) and there are shared songthaews (passenger pick-up vehicles) which do the run for just 20 Baht a person. From the bus station, I paid 50 or 60 baht for the tuk-tuk to the border – it’s much further.

Through immigration on the Thai side and it’s another 20 Baht by bus across the bridge. Arriving on the Laotian side and in need of a Lao visa (36 pound for Brits) I was met by a hundred or so foreigners also wanting one. Quite a wait altogether, probably about an hour to go through the whole procedure – that is exiting Thailand, going over the bridge and getting a Lao visa.

Now take a hint here – once you pass through Lao immigration you may be bombarded with touts suggesting you take one of ‘their’ songthaews to the Thai embassy in Vientiane. Instead, forget them and walk straight ahead where you’ll find a shared songthaew charging 50Baht each to take you direct to the Thai Embassy or hotel / guest house of choice. If you are looking for even cheaper than that, there are public buses which leave when as full as sardines in a can.

Second mistake – I went straight to the Thai Embassy for opening at 8:30 – and as it was a Monday I ended up getting ticket number about 350. Altogether, it took me around 2 and a half hours of being sat around mostly listening to foreigners about their Visa trip company run so far. Having paid a small fortune for their packaged trip, they had the privilege of being served first, but they also had to wait for ages. Forget it visa-runners, if you wanna do the trip, do it yourself and you’ll save lots of cash and enjoy the freedom of eating and drinking where and whatever you wish – even though you may make a couple of blunders along the way like me! Big Tip: Don’t bother getting to the embassy on time, arrive half an hour before the closing time of 11am when there are hardly any people left.

After the embassy, I took a tuk-tuk into Vientiane at about 40Baht and stayed at a guest house recommended by my buddie here in Suphanburi. The guest house was fine enough mind you, but it was pretty far from the river, a kilometer and a half walk. So, if you fancy being near farang eateries and the bars etc… better you find a place to stay near the fountain area.

There are a few things I love about Vietiane, but tops just has to be the awesome views of the sunset from the banks of the Maekhong River while having a having a Beer Lao and a coupla snacks – absolutely mandatory for anyone on their first trip. Second up perhaps, is the French bread – contrary to popular thought, French bread is a traditional breakfast for many of the locals. As for me, the bread with cheese spread has been a must-eat on ever occasion I been to Laos. Third up is the national female dress. Pop down the river for the sunset, and you can admire the local Lao ladies having a drink after work wearing their sarong (and high-heels#@!). A type of dress which got booted out of Thai tradition during the cultural transitions of the 1930/40s. Even the schoolgirls keep to wearing sarongs – altogether a pretty difference from the so-called Westernization of Thai outfits.

Before you know it, your Thai visa will be ready in a jiffy – next afternoon to be precise. Not being so daft this time, I got to the embassy well after opening hours and received my passport back in literally 2 minutes. Having done the trip on my own and not with a visa tour, I had plenty in my wallet left over for another fun day in the capital. Unlike the package tourists who get hauled back to Thailand as soon as they collect their visas.

After a memorable coupla days in Vientiane it was time to head home. And it was very simple indeed. I just walked to the Talat Sao (Morning Market) and hired my own songthaew to take me to the border for a more than reasonable 100baht. There are direct Vientiane – Nong Khai buses which do the trip for slightly less, but they drop you off at the bus station. But I had thought sod to the bus and opted for the train instead. Going on your own like this, you also get the chance to wander around duty free where you can pick up bargain-priced imported French wines and premium whiskeys for your Thai friends and family.

Arriving on the Thai side, you once again get approached by tuk-tuk offering you a pricey ride; be adamant that 20baht is enough to get you to the train station and you’ll soon be pointed to a shared songthaew. I had no bother whatsoever getting a train ticket back (to Ayutthaya for connection to Suphanburi). Even if you gotta wait around a bit waiting for the train, there are a few restaurants just opposite dishing up eatable munchies where you can hang around till your train leaves. I had such a fine time altogether that I’m tempted to go back to Vientiane as soon as I can. Do the Vientiane visa trip on your own, don’t rush it, and it can certainly turn into an enjoyable mini vacation.

Going to a Thai Funeral

It would seem that the longer I stay in Thailand, the higher the frequency that I attend funerals. In fact, I have two sets of funeral clothes now. I thought today I would give a brief overview of a cremation in order to help any foreigners who might find themselves attending a funeral while in Thailand. Normally, a funeral will go on for three, five or seven days with the actual cremation taking place on the last day. It is possible that you might be invited to attend the chanting during the week. You would do this if it was a close friend or a relative of a close friend. However, most people would only attend the actual cremation on the last day.

For this cremation, most people were invited to turn up at 5 p.m. By the way, cremations never take place on a Friday. During the afternoon, the coffin was transferred from the main hall where the daily chanting took place and was taken in a parade to the crematorium. Before it was taken up the steps, it was taken around the crematorium three times. Normally, we would do this in a clockwise direction. But, for funerals, this is always done in an anti-clockwise direction. The coffin is then put on a stand in front of the crematorium and the photo of the deceased placed to one side.

At some cremations I have attended, there were performances such as traditional Thai dancing and also music. However, as this all costs a lot of money, most funerals keep it simple. After the history of the deceased person has been read out, distinguished guests and close family members then present monk’s robes in front of the coffin. Notice on the right a piece of cloth that goes up and into the coffin where it is attached to a piece of string that leads to the deceased person. What happens is a monk will then take the robe from the tray as if the deceased person had presented it themselves.

The monks in attendance, distinguished guests and close family members will then place sandalwood flowers underneath the coffin. This is symbolic and is as if each person is helping light the fire. Then everyone else, including you if you attend a funeral, go up the steps of the crematorium to place the flower too. What most people do is tap the coffin a couple of times, place the flower in a tray under the coffin and then give a quick “wai”. You are also supposed to say a short prayer telling the deceased person that you forgive them for any wrong doings in the past. On your way down, you will be given a kind of souvenir of the funeral to take home. Sometimes this a book about the life of the deceased person. Notice in this picture how people are dressed. You should wear black or white or combination of both.

At this stage, most people would go home. They have paid their respects. For this particular cremation, it was over within twenty minutes. Others I have attended took about an hour as there were performances too. It is mainly family members that stay for the actual cremation. What happens first is that the ornaments decorating the coffin are removed. The coffin is then lifted off its base and then carried towards the crematorium oven. The lid is then taken off. A coconut is cut open and the juice poured over the deceased person. The coffin is then pushed inside the chamber. This is the last chance for family members to pay their respects. Some even threw more sandalwood flowers into the coffin.

Everyone then went down to the bottom of the steps where they gathered around to watch the cremation. At some funerals I have attended, rockets were fired into the sky. However, this is banned in residential areas. They don’t wait for the fire to finish. They will come back the next day to collect the ashes. There will then be more chanting before the ashes are scattered on the Chao Phraya River. This is where I went today and I will share my pictures with you later in the week.

Children’s Day in Samut Prakan 2010

The annual National Children’s Day for Thailand took place today. Children are considered as the most valuable resource of the country. There is a Thai saying that goes, “Children are the future of the nation, if the children are intelligent, the country will be prosperous.” To help stimulate children to be aware of their significant role in the country, the National Children’s Day was held for the first time on the first Monday of October 1955 and continued like this until 1963. Then it was changed to the second Saturday of January.

Many organizations around the country and popular tourist attractions for children, like zoos, put on special activities for children. Most of these allowed children to go in for free. Some public transport was also free today for children. In Samut Prakan, children didn’t have to pay to go to the Crocodile Farm, Ancient Siam and The Erawan Museum. Other places, like the Royal Thai Naval Academy, opened their doors especially for children and their parents. Here two boys are playing on a warship. There was also dog shows.

At the City Hall Plaza in Samut Prakan, there were many activities for the children to take part in. Many of the fun games had prizes which they gave away. But there were also some booths, like this one, where they were just handing out presents to the children. There was also free food and drinks for everyone including parents. The fire brigade was there allowing the children to have hands-on experience of putting out fires.

The emphasis was on having fun and there was certainly plenty of that despite all the crowds. The event was opened by the Governor who told the children of the motto for this year which is: “Think creatively, learn diligently, uphold morality.” He also allowed the children to go and visit his office where he works and have their picture taken with him. Children all over the country certainly look forward to this day.

You can see some more of my pictures over at www.paknamphotos.com and a video at www.paknam.com.

Media Players in Thailand

When I first came to Thailand fifteen years ago there wasn’t really that much in the way of English media. All we had at the time were two national newspapers in English and a few programmes on television if we tuned in to a certain radio station to get the English soundtrack. Also, if I travelled into Bangkok I could watch the latest Hollywood movies with the original soundtrack. Things have certainly changed. Some of the national television stations now broadcast both Thai and English audio channels. This is great for watching movies. Even the evening news has an English voiceover if you want. Then there are a growing number of Thai programmes that have English subtitles. More DJ’s on the radio are speaking English and playing the latest songs from Europe and America. We now, of course, have satellite stations from people like True Visions (formerly known as UBC). This means we can get the latest news from CNN and BBC and also Hollywood movies from HBO and Star Movies. However, this comes at a high price. But, the biggest innovation for us expats in Thailand was the dawn of the Internet. This suddenly gave us access to a lot of media from back home.

The first gadget that I bought to stream media from the Internet was an Internet Radio box that I bought a couple of years ago in the UK. At that time they didn’t have them in Thailand and really, even now, they are hard to come across. I never really listened to Internet Radio on my computer before. But the Internet Radio that I bought works independently from your computer. It looks a bit like an old-fashioned radio. However, it is very modern as it picks up the Internet wirelessly. This means I can plug it in anywhere around the house and I can listen to thousands of radio stations from around the world. Some of my pre-set channels include BBC Radio and a few local channels. I have it on all the time in the office which is my link with the home country. I like the Internet Radio so much that when I went back to the UK the next time I bought two more in the sales! Now I have one in the living room and one in the bedroom. One good thing that I like is that it has an “on demand” menu for some of the stations. So, if there is a particular radio programme that I would like to listen to, I can just choose to listen to when I like.

I was never really into downloading movies and t.v. programmes from the Internet. I just didn’t fancy watching these on my computer. However, after True Visions dropped the BBC Entertainment channel I was forced to look elsewhere for British programmes. That is when I discovered two things. The first was the ease of downloading with torrents and the second were the new DVD players that have a USB port. So, all you had to do is download a programme in say .avi format, copy this across to a USB thumbdrive, plug this into your DVD player and then you could watch it on your television. So, when True Vision suddenly cancelled the BBC channel when I was halfway through several seasons, I was now able to finish watching these programmes. Then of course, I discovered new shows and some old favourites from years ago. I started to get hooked to downloading. However, it was still a little inconvenient. After I had downloaded the programmes, I had to copy across to the USB drive and then physically take it to the DVD player in the other room. But, now this has all changed for me.

The latest gadget that I bought to help me get in touch with programmes back home is this media player called PlayOn!HD. Media Players have been around for a few years now but they were never readily available in Thailand. The first ones that came out weren’t really that good. Now we have two or three alternatives that have transferred my leisure time. The main two features of this media player is that it is a HD version so I can use a HDMI cable to plug it into my big LCD t.v. Secondly it can be plugged into the network. This means that from my t.v. I can browse files on my computer and then stream any that I like. Even .MKV files which my DVD player couldn’t play. When I bought the PlayOn!HD I also bought a hard disk as well. This has two advantages. Firstly, I can store all the files on the hard disk which allows me to turn off the computer. More importantly, I can download torrents directly from the Internet onto the media player. As it uses less power than leaving my computer on to download programmes, I can just leave the media player on all night and then the next day sit down to watch my favourite programmes from the UK.

If you want to know more about where to buy media players in Thailand then visit the Paknam Web Forums where I have opened a thread on this subject.