Monthly Archives: February 2011

Thai Shadow Puppet Museum

In the old days, before movies and T.V. soap operas, people were entertained with Nang Talung. This is the art of shadow puppets that first became popular in Southern Thailand two or three generations ago. It has since spread to other parts of Thailand, like the north-east, but many people still see it as an art form from the south. Unfortunately it is very rare to be able to see a shadow puppet show these days. Movies and T.V. shows are the preferred form of entertainment these days. However, during my recent trip to Nakhon Si Thammarat, I was lucky enough to be able to watch three shadow puppet shows.

Thailand’s most famous shadow puppet master is Mr. Suchart Sapsin. He has been making puppets and putting on performances since he was a teenager. He is now 72 years old and has been named a national artist of Thailand. In 1985, he said that he had a once in a lifetime opportunity to perform for H.M. The King. Apparently the performance greatly impressed the King and he thanked Suchart for keeping the ancient folk art alive in these modern times. “He also asked me not to hold back my knowledge and skill, and that I should pass it on to the next generation.” Suchart went on to say that “it was then that I decided to build a museum”.

The Shadow Puppet Museum, or “Ban Nang Talung Suchart Supsin” in Thai, is located in the same compound as his family home in Nakhon Si Thammarat. It is only a short ten minute walk from the famous pagoda at Wat Phra Mahathat. The museum is open every day and has no admission price. However, near the entrance there is a small shop selling genuine puppets and it is appreciated if you buy something or at least make a donation for the upkeep of the museum. Suchart’s son is now involved in the running of the museum so at least the shadow puppets will last another generation at least.

The museum itself is on the second floor of an old wooden building built on stilts. Here you will find a large collection of artefacts which trace the history of shadow puppets back more than 200 years. As well as a large collection of puppets, there  are also the different musical instruments that are used during the performance. In the old days they didn’t have any electricity so they had to use a lantern which is now on show here. Not all of the items on display have English labels, but they have produced a couple of excellent brochures in English which will help guide you to understand what you are looking at.

Downstairs we had a chance to see how they made the shadow puppets. These are made from buffalo or cow hide which are treated and then dried on a frame for three days. Once ready, the design is drawn on the leather and then small intricate tools are used to cut out the shapes. A basic puppet could take 3 or 4 hours to complete. But more complicated designs will take days if not weeks to complete. Once the puppet is finished, they are then painted using black, green, red and yellow colours. Bamboo sticks are then fastened to the puppets. Some only need 2 or 3 sticks but others need more as they will move things like eyebrows and tongues.

While we were there we were very fortunate to be given a performance by Suchart himself. These are not regular shows. If you want to see a shadow puppet show you would need to telephone in advance to make an appointment. Suchart operated all of the puppets himself and also did the different voices. However, there was one other person that provided the music and sound effects. It was actually really good as he managed to blend an ancient art form with modern contemporary issues. In the show that we watched some of the props included mobile phones, motorbikes and airplanes. It was a really good show and we all enjoyed it immensely.

I have posted more pictures on my Facebook Page.

The Shadow Puppet Museum can be found at 110/18 Si Thammarat Road, Soi 3. For further information, please call 07 534 6394.

Kayaking and Pink Dolphins

Probably one of the best ways to see dolphins close up in Thailand is by kayak. During my recent trip to Nakhon Si Thamarat Province, I joined Khanom Fishing & Tour for their one day tour called “Conserving Dolphins, Conserving Khanom Environment”. They operate out of Khanom which is a district at the northern end of the province. Our boat ride along the coastline took us close to the ferries that were heading out to Koh Samui. I am told that if you catch one of these ferries then you have a good chance of spotting some dolphins.

Our trip started at Thong Nian where we boarded the tour boat. Our guide for the day was “Uncle Daeng” a charismatic guy who used to be a park ranger. His knowledge of the area is extensive and he told us not only about the views from the boat but also of his days as a ranger when he used to track poachers. Most of the beaches along this coastline were deserted though in a few places there was evidence of bungalows and resorts being built. However, we were told that most of this area is going to be protected as it is part of the newly created Hat Khanom – Mu Ko Thale Tai National Park.

The coastline is a mixture of lush forests, limestone mountains and mangrove forests. Uncle Daeng told us that on one of his tours he takes tourists to Khao Wang Cave which has some beautiful stalactites and stalagmites as well as some amazing rock formations. During our boat ride he took us past a series of limestone rock formations which have been nicknamed “Pancake Rock”. Long ago these used to be on the seabed when alternate layers of hard and soft sediments were piled on top of each other. Later, when they were forced to the surface, the wind and rain helped to erode the softer rock leaving these formations.

During the boat ride, there was a lookout on duty the whole time trying to spot the dolphins. Whenever we passed a fishing boat they slowed down so that they could ask the fishermen if they had seen any dolphins today. We were in luck. Some had been spotted further up the coastline. About 20 minutes later we saw the fin of our first dolphin. They surfaced for only a few seconds before going back under. This of course made it very difficult to get any pictures. These weren’t dolphins like at Safari World in Bangkok. These ones don’t pose for pictures so I ended up with a dozen photos of an empty sea and a few shots of fins!

Although these humpback dolphins are native to this area and can be seen year round, they are an endangered species and their numbers are dwindling. Despite the fact that they can live up to 60 years of age, an increasing number of dead dolphins have been found. Some of them had obviously been hurt by fishing nets from the bigger boats. Uncle Daeng told us that Khanom Fishing & Tour were working with the local community to help safeguard the dolphins. A series of buoys have been set up to mark the feeding ground of the dolphins so that fishing boats know to stay away. During the tour Uncle Daeng took us to a cove where he showed us how to plant sea grass which is their way of giving back to the environment.

To be completely  environmentally friendly, it is probably not a good idea to chase the dolphins in big boats. That is why we also went kayaking. This was great fun though maybe a little hot in the mid-day sun. We explored a number of different areas including a small rock island where a hermit monk used to live. The day long tour costs 1,200 baht for adults and 800 baht for childred aged 4-9. They also do free pick-up from your hotel and lunch is included. More details can be found on Khanom Fishing & Tour’s website. The map below shows the area where we explored by boat and kayak. More photos can be seen on my Facebook page.

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Bun Bang Fai Festival near Roi Et

In July 2010 I went with my friends Aod and Chai to visit Aod’s family in Roi Et province. On the 10 and 11 July they celebrated the Bun Bang Fai Rocket Festival in the village of Ban Kang Pla (Nong Phai) which is on the road no 2043 a few km outside of Roi Et.

On the first day they held a parade through the village with beautifully decorated floats, marching bands, and dancing groups. The parade started and ended at the village temple (Wat Charoenphol Ban Kang Pla). In the temple grounds a bouncy castle and a few trampolines were set up for the children to enjoy. All over the village were stalls with food and drinks and guys on motorbikes were selling ice cream from their side-car. Vendors would sell balloons and other souvenirs. From some little stall you could buy small rockets. We bought a couple for ourselves and in the evening we fired them into the sky in our village. These rockets don’t go “boom” nor do they burst into colourful displays. Their only purpose is to rise as high as possible into the sky to appease some goddess and ensure a good rainfall.

The parade was opened by some official in the temple were they had some reserved seating for guests of honour. Hundreds of people lined the village roads and all had a jolly good time (and some too much to drink). Quite a few people were walking around with their umbrella opened, not because they were expecting a sudden downpour, but to protect themselves from the burning sun, which was rather strong on this day. Apart from myself there were only one or two more farang at the parade. This didn’t bother me at all. I don’t mind the odd foreigner.

Occasionally the parade would come to a halt. Usually the reason was that one of the big floats got itself entangled in the power cables, which were hanging fairly low across the streets throughout the village. When this happened men with long bamboo sticks would lift up the cables to allow the float to pass underneath. Sometimes they had to climb on top of the float and fold the decorations down so that the float could pass – a bit like the mast of a sailing vessel that is passing under a low bridge.

On the second day the big rockets were sent skywards. For this purpose a rocket launcher had been erected in a meadow opposite the village on the other side of the road No 2043. This contraption looked probably not dissimilar from what the Americans used for the early Apollo missions. As is customary in space exploration each rocket launch began with a countdown. Since there were not too many clouds in the sky it was easy to follow the path of each rocket with the naked eye. Some monks were also in attendance – I assume to give a blessing for each rocket.

Again there were a few stalls with food and drink, and also some souvenirs. People would just walk about, stand to watch the launch of a rocket or sit down in the grass to have a family picnic. On the opposite end of the meadow from the launch pad was a big stage with live music. Anybody who felt like they needed to shake the hokey cokey out of their legs was to be found here.

Hae Pha Khuen Festival

One of the most important places to celebrate Makha Bucha Day, a Buddhist holiday, is at Wat Phra Mahathat Woramahawihan. This royal temple, in Nakhon Si Thammarat in Southern Thailand, houses a relic of the Lord Buddha. On the full moon day during February every year, local people take part in a parade called Hae Pha Khuen That. They believe that taking part will bring them good fortune and success in life. So, Buddhists come from far away to take part in the parade.

In the old days, Thai Buddhists would prepare a long piece of white cloth painted with the story of the Buddha’s life. This cloth is known as Phra Bot. They would then carry this in a parade to the temple where they would wrap it around the giant stupa which houses a relic of the Buddha. These days, people don’t always have time to prepare such a cloth, so instead, many of them would carry cloths that were either coloured white, yellow or red.

The tradition of making a Phra Bot as an offering is done by Buddhists all around the world. In order to make the festival more of an international event, last year for the first time, the local government invited participants from other Buddhist countries such as Sri Lanka, India, Japan and China. This is rather apt as because the very first Phra Bot, which was used to wrap around the stupa, was originally made as an offering to the Buddha’s Footprint in Sri Lanka.

According to legend, the tradition of wrapping a Phra Bot around the stupa dated back to 1230 A.D. during the reign of King Si Thamma Sokkarat. He had just finished building a giant stupa called Phra Boromthat which housed a relic of the Lord Buddha. Before he had formerly dedicated the stupa, he heard that some people had been shipwrecked after a violent storm. With them they had a Phra Bot which they were taking to Sri Lanka as an offering. The King decided to bring this Phra Bot to the stupa where he wrapped it around the construction as an offering to the Buddha. This then became an annual tradition.

I was lucky yesterday to be able to take part in this parade for the first time. I had flown down to Nakhon Si Thammarat by Nok Air the day before. The flight only took 70 minutes compared to ten hours by bus. The parade started near the City Pillar on Ratchadamnoen Road. There were literally thousands of people taking part in the parade. These varied from local schools and organisations to individual Buddhists who had travelled from far and near to take part in this important pilgrimage. Most of them were holding onto a piece of the Phra Bot cloth.

After the opening ceremony by the provincial governor, the parade set off along Ratchadamnoen Road towards Wat Phramahathat Woramahawihan. Although we could see it in the far distance, I think it took us nearly an hour to walk there. It was a very hot day and even though people were obviously exhausted, I think they were happy to take part. Along the way local people had come out to watch and also to offer water to the people taking part in the parade. I arrived ahead of the parade only to find that there were already thousands of people at the temple wrapping cloths around the stupas, both big and small.

I climbed the steps to the base of the giant stupa. This is an up-turned bell-shaped chedi in the Sri-Lankan style. Although the parade hadn’t arrived yet, many pieces of cloth had already been wrapped around the base which has a circumference of 36 meters. The stupa itself is 53 meters high. The last eight meters at the very top is made from solid gold. This is the part that houses a tooth, which is a relic of the Lord Buddha. People were either stapling or pinning their pieces of cloth to the ones that were already there. They were also writing prayers on the cloth.

I had a really enjoyable time taking part in this festival. The whole event took place between 12th and 18th February 2011. They had many other activities during the past week which led up to the parade on the last day. This included a light and sound show that I watched on Thursday night. If you get a chance, it is definitely worth visiting Nakhon Si Thammarat next year during the week leading up to the full moon in February. There is a lot to see and do in this province which I will tell you about another day. In fact, I am still here and tomorrow I will be going on a boat tour where I will be doing some kayaking. Hopefully we will get a chance to see some pink dolphins. More about that later.

– Posted from my iPad

5 More Bangkok Day Trips for Kids

Safari World and Marine Park

This is the continuation of my Bangkok Day Trips for Kids. Probably the most popular open zoo and theme park close to Bangkok is Safari World and Marine Park on the northern outskirts of Bangkok. I have taken Nong Grace here twice and she has also gone with her school. She keeps asking about going back again. The first section is the safari park where you can drive around getting quite close to the animals roaming free. Just don’t open the windows in the lion enclosure. Coach tours are available if you don’t have a car. There are a number of animals shows such as dolphins, birds and elephants. There is also a stunt show. Nong Grace also liked feeding the animals. When we were last there a combined ticket cost 700 baht

Samphran Elephant Ground in Nakhon Pathom Province

To the east of Bangkok you will find Samphran Elephant Ground. This is touted as the greatest elephant show in Thailand. In my travels I have seen many elephant shows and I must say that they are right! Here they showed the strong relationship between elephants and the Thai people. How they worked together in logging and also their important role in the wars with Burma. The battle scenes were definitely impressive though maybe a little loud for younger kids. There were also some lighter moments like a soccer match between elephants. At Samphran they also have a Crocodile Show. It was alright but I have seen much better. When we were there it cost 500 baht for adults and 300 baht for children. There are also opportunities to have your picture taken with animals, feed the animals and also ride elephants.

Bangsaen Beach and Monkey Hill in Chonburi Province

If you want to take your kids to the beach then you will find the nearest one at Bangsaen Beach in Chonburi Province. It is just over an hour from Bangkok. Don’t go expecting white sand and crystal clear water as this is the point along the coast where mangrove forests turn to beaches for the first time. However, it is popular with Thai people who often spend the day here at the weekend. During the week you might find the place to yourself. The beach is a good place to eat some seafood. Other local attractions include an aquarium, a Buddhist Hell park and monkey mountain.

Khao Kheow Open Zoo

Another open zoo near Bangkok is Khao Kheow Open Zoo in Chonburi Province. It is out in the middle of nowhere and so it is more spread out compared to Safari World. I personally like this one better as you can take your time driving around to see the animals. There are car parks throughout the zoo so you can just stop where you like to explore a certain area. If you don’t have a car you can join tram tours or rent golf carts. When we went we drove around the whole place twice as Nong Grace wanted to go back and see certain animals again. You cannot do that at Safari World. There are plenty of opportunities to feed the animals and the prices for buying food wasn’t so bad. There is also a Children’s Zoo where the kids can pet the animals. We easily spent the whole day here and will probably go back again during the summer holidays this year. The admission price was only 100 baht for adults and 50 baht for children.

Samut Prakan Crocodile Farm and Zoo

Just to the south of Bangkok is the Samut Prakan Crocodile Farm and Zoo. This is in my home province and we have been here quite a few times. It has the usual crocodile wrestling show where they put their hand and head into the mouth of a crocodile. Other places have much the same show but I think this one is superior. They also have 1000’s of crocodiles of various sizes in different pens. You can buy buckets of chickens to feed the crocodiles. There is also an elephant show but it is not that exciting. But, the elephant ride here was only 50 baht when we went. There is a big lake where you can rent boats and you can also ride a train around the park. In addition the the elephants there are also zoo animals. However, their living conditions are a little sad. When we last went entrance fee was 300 baht for adults.