Author Archives: Bill Grimson

Seeking Both The Sublime And The Ridiculous

tat phanom

The other day I came across an old work acquaintance that I hadn’t seen for about 15 years. He asked whether I still spent my annual holidays in Thailand to which I replied yes. To that he asked quite pleasantly, aren’t you bored doing that every year. A bit defensively I said no I’m not.

It was a fair question. Ever since I was a teenager I had always wanted to roam the world and in my early twenties traveled to places in the Middle East, Europe, Asia, North America and one trip behind the Iron Curtain. But since 1977 I have pretty much devoted my foreign travel to Thailand with side trips to its neighbours in South East Asia. A possible lack of Imagination?

But one thing that I am sure of is that from that first hot sticky night in Bangkok in 1977, the Kingdom placed a hook in me that has never let go. To me Thailand has become an ever expanding horizon, which perversely means in some ways that I feel I know less about the place than I did in 1977. Since coming across Thai-Blogs and subsequently a contributor, the many wonderful stories and insights that I have read from other visitors/residents/nationals on this Website has again reinforced how little I do know (so much more to do – so much more to see)

But as usual I am drifting off the subject. The desire to travel, to see whats over the horizon has driven mankind from the beginning. In the main it has been for reasons such as conquest, hunger , curiousity and after the advent of mass tourism – pleasure. Apart from business travel and military invasion, the main reason people seem to board aircraft and ships is the seeking of “a good time”.

Once arriving at their foreign destination, how people seek this “good time” can be done in multiple ways. I once met a complete stranger at a BBQ in Australia who mentioned in passing that he also was a regular traveler to Thailand. I asked him what he liked doing there, to which he replied succinctly “slutting” in Pattaya. My first reaction was to pass him off as simply as a 50 year old male with more testosterone than good taste. But in fairness and with moral and legal considerations pushed to the side, I suppose the horny Farang was entitled to seek his pleasure between the sheets (If that was all that he was after)

One of the things I believe that makes Human Beings interesting is their sometimes simultaneous desire for intellectual stimulation married with simple amusement. Sort of like feeling your spirit soar during a night out at an Italian Opera and whilst driving home , drumming your fingers on the steering wheel listening to “Elevator music” on the car radio.

To be a well balanced individual, I believe that you have to find the synergy between intellectual pursuit, spiritual enrichment and the need to be able to kick back and simply enjoy and be entertained. In terms of travel to Thailand (although its really applicable to all countries) I’ve always believed that to compartmentalize experiences is a bit negative. For example to visit Thailand and only engage in “elevated” activities such as temple tours would be sterile just as at the other end of the scale – to participate in nothing more than Sex Tourism is equally banal.

That wonderful Thai expression “Sanuk” has always captured the positive force of experiencing life and enjoying as much as possible. To “seek both the sublime and the ridiculous” as this Blog is titled.

Of course no matter how much we might try for multiple and varied experience in our travels we tend to orientate towards a favourite. The favourite experience that I not so much seek but do look out for is that of the ridiculous. Not ridiculous in an angry assertive sense but for things that make you laugh and smile and that teach you not to take life or most importantly yourself too seriously.

>mobile phone

I have plucked two random examples from the many bouncing around my ancient and decrepit mind. The first one was a reflection of modern times. We had invited the village monks to our house in the village for a blessing. A few minutes into the ceremony and one of the senior monks ( see photo above) took time out to answer the mobile phone that he had with him. The call as it turned out was from another villager also inviting the monks to his house for a blessing. Hardly breaking his stride, the Monk recorded the fresh invitation in a notebook and then continued with the ceremony.

The second example was when Mali and I were sitting in a roadside restaurant at Pattaya which specialized in Pork dishes. A German family arrived at the entrance of the restaurant – Mum, Dad and their three young kids. What distinguished them was that they all had the same rotund body shape, wore identical rimless “John Lennon” glasses and appeared to be salivating whilst reading the menu. Finally Dad said in an audible “Homer Simpson” accent – “Mmmm!!! Schwein !!!!”

I agree that the above aren’t earth shattering anecdotes with the second probably only amusing because of the two or three Singhas that I had drunk that night. But that’s life – the most adhoc thoughts seem to filter out of our minds

I would like to finish this Blog by offering the following disclaimer:

For anybody who has found this Blog to be confusing or pointless – please remember that I’m on your side

Bill

Loy Krathong In The Village Of Ban Phutsa

Ban Phutsa kids

Loy Krathong is probably the most visually evocative of all Festivals held in the Kingdom of Thailand. It would take a very mean spirited individual not to be moved by the sight of a November full moon with thousands of candles and incense sticks flickering and burning on floating Krathongs.

As November is the month that Mali and I normally visit Thailand, I have attended many Loy Krathong celebrations over the years. In the main these have been in rural areas in Isaan. Although these village celebrations don’t have the scope or grandeur of mainstream celebrations in say Krung Thep or Sukhothai they are still marvelous due to their relative simplicity and the community involvement of Village people.

Last November I attended once again another Loy Krathong celebration in the Isaan village of Ban Phutsa in Nakhonratchasima province. In the days leading up to Loy Krathong night there were many reminders of the significance of this celebration.

Ban Phutsa Sala

The Hindu origins of Loy Krathong date back centuries to the Sukhothai period of Thai history where it commemorated both the ending of the rainy season and the all important rice harvest. As such one of the two main Sala’s in the village were decorated with palm and coconut fronds and included mounds of freshly picked green coconuts.

Many villagers were in attendance at the Sala where the village monks chanted and were offered alms. Amongst this the Monks blessed small sacks of rice from the all important rice harvest that was occurring at that time. It also reminded of the important role that the village Wat plays in the life of rural Thailand. Village temples are places, which Thai people enter and use freely and take immense pride in.

Over at the other Sala in the village Wat a small cottage industry was creating the colourful Krathongs that the villagers would float on the night. In the main they were being built out of banana leaf and decorated with flowers, candles and incense sticks. The only sign of modernity were the Styrofoam bases. The Krathongs were then sold for a few baht to villagers with all profits donated to the village Wat.

Krathong Construction

completed krathongs

As the moon rose on the night of Loy Krathong the villagers slowly gathered in the grounds of the temple. From there holding their Krathongs people moved out to a large irrigation pond in the rice fields immediately behind the temple.

As the Candles and incense sticks were lit and the obligatory coins also placed on them, the Krathongs were launched by young and all. The pond soon came to life with the flicker of candlelight and the musky odour of burning incense. Amongst the throng of people village monks moved easily, talking and laughing with family, friends and neighbours. As an event it could only be described as Sanuk.

loy kratong lights

As mentioned above, it wasn’t as grand as the celebrations in Krung Thep and other places but just like home made chocolate cake, just so much sweeter.

And then it was over, another important cycle completed in that intriguing place called the Kingdom of Thailand.

Bill

Entrusting Your Hair To A Thai Barber

Thais from a Farang point of view appear to be a very laid back and tolerant nation of people. Although many aspects of life are taken quite seriously, the defusing effects of Sanuk soon kick in and bring things back to natural balance.

One issue that I find Thais take quite seriously (and yet is still a Sanuk event) is personal hair care. In short, you won’t stay in business long as a hairdresser or barber in Thailand if you give lousy haircuts.

Irrespective if they are rich or poor, Thais pay great attention to personal hygiene, neatness of dress and above all a well-groomed hairstyle. As such Thai Cities, Towns and even some villages abound with hairdressing establishments. Hair Care even comes with its own traditions and superstitions such as Monday being a propitious time for a haircut whereas Wednesday is deemed to be unlucky for a cut.

mali in the chair

Another aspect is the scattering of cut hair over water for luck. It would be rare for me to visit Thailand without being instructed by a female member of the family for me to take a plastic bag full of their freshly cut hair out to the rice fields and scatter it over a river or canal.

hair on water

But next to the mechanics of hair care and lets start with the Ladies first. When Mali and our daughter Natalie visit the Kingdom several trips to the hairdresser are usually involved. Mali revels in this and will go to one hairdresser one day just to get her hair washed and visit another a few days later to have it styled and cut. When she has it done at the village hairdresser, she can also catch up with all the local gossip, who’s sleeping with who, the weather and listen to another opinion on Thaksin.

natalie at hairdresser

Through all the professionalism at the hairdresser “Thai Time” still reigns supreme and many hours can be whiled away in the hairdressers chair. My daughter had her hair straightened a few years ago, which involved a six hour process including a meal brought in from a local restaurant.

And now for the men. One aspect of male haircuts that I find endlessly fascinating is that more often than not is that you tend to end up with not the cut that you asked for but the one the Thai barber subtly believes you should have. As such at times I have emerged after 45 minutes with my hair much neater but still the same length. Other times the barber has whooped so much off that I have ended up looking like a mature aged schoolboy.

But I don’t want to sound like a whining Farang. For a relatively small outlay in Baht, you usually get a very meticulous haircut, your neck and shoulders massaged, the hair in your nose cut and sometimes your ears given a perfunctory cleanout. When I am standing at the cash register I think of how much a haircut in Australia costs (more than having the oil in your car changed).

Of course like a pub or a bar you sometimes find a hair cutting establishment that you keep gravitating back to. Mine is a barbershop in the Isaan town of Phimai. It can only be described as a real “Blokes Barbershop” – crud on the walls and ceiling, the obligatory “men’s magazine” calendar on the wall and the chairs a bit worse for wear.

My favourite anecdote of this shop (run by a two man partnership) was about 5 years ago. I had ridden into Phimai from the village for a haircut, but when I arrived at the shop I found the senior barber dead drunk and sleeping in the doorway of the shop. He wasn’t in any physical distress and had the contented look of a tomcat on his face.

I stepped gingerly around his body (careful not to step over it) and entered the shop. I was soon followed in by two more Thai males. One of them was smiling broadly while the other was poker faced (although I suspect not out of disgust but simply because he had seen it all before)

The person who seemed to be the most amused by it all was the junior barber who was left to shoulder the wheel that day. A few days later I was walking past the barbershop and I noticed that the formally prostrate barber up on his feet, bright eyed and bushy tailed as they say and giving superb haircuts.

Bill

Coming To Grips With Thai Buddhism

Inviting the monks home

When I paid my first visit to the Kingdom in 1977, I had a basic understanding that Thailand was a Buddhist nation. It was an understanding similar to my understanding that the first Atomic Bomb had something to do with uranium – in other words the harsh reality was that I knew nothing.

Of course there was no problem in that ignorance. Thais in general then as they are now are fairly easy about Farang indifference to their religion. This possibly has something to do with one of the great tenets of all schools of Buddhism, which is that proselytizing is frowned on. Of course Thais tend to be pleased when foreigners express an interest in Buddhism, but conversely can be dismayed at the sight of Farangs pointing their feet or treating Buddha images with disrespect. The stories of ignorant foreigners sitting on Buddha images and copping the full wrath of the law are legendry.

Now of course whilst to many foreigners, Buddhism in Thailand is just a colourful backdrop to their holiday in Thailand (and lets face it – Buddhist Temples and Monks have launched millions of beautiful photographs) other Farang’s have discovered that it is an opening window on Thai culture.

waiting

But in looking through this window many Farang including myself have sometimes ended up confused and scratching our heads. The growing influence of Buddhism has been one of the success stories in the west over the past 30 years. It has come about on one hand by the rejection of a materialistic explanation of life and at the other pole the rejection of an explanation of life based purely on faith. The emphasis in Buddhism on not accepting anything purely on faith and where the path in many respects is more important than the destination has a direct appeal to many westerners.

But once in the Kingdom the budding western practitioner of Buddhism occasionally will hit the confusion wall. He/She may have concluded that Buddhism is the great contemplative religion but subsequently is confronted by a devoutly Buddhist country that is highly intuitive but without a great deal of empathy with the contemplative path. In short Buddhism and its practice in Thailand tends to more felt than thought about.

shave

What does the still interested Farang practitioner do in these circumstances? How to deal with animist practice and the not to occasional sight of sloth in the Sangha. Not only this but also the difficult path of understanding Merit making without out at times finding it a tad mercenary. My observation and solution is not to sweat it but rather in trying to see things from a Thai perspective. Just appreciating the enjoyment and spiritual fulfillment that Thais get from their living religion can be very enriching.

When I journey to the Kingdom, I now look forward to attending ordinations, Kathin and other ceremonies not only for their spiritual significance but also for the simple enjoyment of just being there.

The great paradox in my view is that whilst Thais have a great feel for Buddhism they quite often try to explain Buddhism to foreigners rather then give them room to feel it. Hence the sometimes fierce boredom of organised tours of Thai temples. I saw a classic example of this last year – not in Thailand but in neighbouring Laos but I hope the example is still valid.

As mentioned in a previous Blog, Luang Prabang is a stunningly beautiful town of 36 Temples. We visited many of these temples and were entranced by their beauty. At one temple we came across an organised party of about 30 French tourists. Although some of the tour party was attentive, the rest of their compatriots were quite frankly “templed” out. Several of the party remained outside of the temple having a smoke, whilst inside I saw a French woman sitting on the floor against a pillar, her mouth agape and gently snoring in the still warmth of the temple.

Today I still believe that their attitude would have been different if they were allowed the space to simply take in the beauty of the temples that they visited rather than instead being lectured about that same quality.

But no matter how well a Farang can learn to appreciate the Thai feel of Buddhism there will be times where an “East is East and West is west “ situation comes about. An example. About four years ago a village friend called Sahm was driving us back down to Bangkok. Sahm knows his way around Thailand the same way an experienced Taxi driver knows every street in London. As it was just outside the airport and on our way he asked whether we would like to visit the controversial Wat Dhammakaya with its famous/infamous golden “flying saucer” temple. We agreed.

Once at the boundary of the temple Farang and Thai soon parted company (culturally at least). My disquiet with the place started to grow from the moment uniformed guards made me surrender my video camera. Inside the temple complex I found the eerie quiet unsettling. The huge and somewhat crude Sala (as big as an airport terminal) that was being constructed with the wind howling through it was weird. Sahm on the other hand was entranced by the place – throughout the two hours that we were there, I was to hear him say repeatedly – “Big”, “Big”.

At the end of the day we were just two average Blokes – One Thai the other Australian, but we both observed in our minds two totally different temples. Who was right?

But in many ways Wat Dhammakaya was an exception in my experience of Thai Buddhism and over time have learned to accept what I perceive to be some of the idiosyncrasies of its practice in the Kingdom.

binderbaht

But getting back to the feel. I can remember a few golden hours that I once spent in the grounds of the Temple in the village of Ban Phutsa in Isaan. A cousin of Mali’s who had left the village a few years before had come back for a visit. He wanted to visit one of the village monks who was a childhood friend. We walked down to the Temple in the cool of the afternoon. Monk and friend were reunited and sat on the steps of the temple Sala yarning and smoking fat hand rolled cigarettes. I spent most of the time strolling the grounds of the temple and enjoying the beautiful sunset.

Finally it was time to go. The monk had walked back into the Sala and returned with a bunch of bananas, which he gave to me to take back to the house.

I don’t know what prompted the gift but I deeply appreciated the generosity and above all, its warmth.

Bill

A Magic Day At Khao Phra Vihaan

Some of the great attractions for visitors to South East Asia are the Angkor period Khmer monuments that can be found stretching from Angkor Wat in Cambodia to the various monuments that can be found in North-East Thailand. The principal monuments in Isaan are Prasad Hin Phimai, Phanom Rung Hill and Khao Phra Vihaan.

Prasad Hin Phimai and Phanom Rung are probably the most well known of the three principal Khmer monuments in Isaan with the subject of this blog – Khao Phra Vihaan not as well known due to its relative isolation.

Khao Phra Vihaan

Khao Phra Vihaan can be found in the Isaan province of Sisaket and sits atop a ridge on the Dangrek mountain range, which forms part of the border with Thailand and Cambodia. Although geographically in Isaan, the monument itself is actually on Cambodian soil. This came about after a World Court decision in 1962 that recognised Cambodian sovereignty over the monument – a continuing sore point between Thailand and Cambodia.

In the past 30 years Khao Phra Vihaan became a backdrop to the catastrophes that have befallen Cambodia during those times. Occupied by the Khmer Rouge, fought over by Cambodian factions and seeded with land mines – the monument became more military outpost than a place of historical importance.

My wife Mali and I first attempted to visit Khao Phra Vihaan in 1997 and got to within 1000 metres of the monument. We were turned back by a small contingent of Thai soldiers who advised that Khmer Rouge Guerillas had reoccupied the monument. Between 1997 and 2003 we attempted to visit several times but luck of the draw had it that the monument was closed due to either strife in Cambodia or nitpicking between Thai and Cambodian bureaucrats.

In November 2003 we tried again, were successful and the following is what happened the day of our trip. After arriving in Sisaket province we drove to the top of the Dangrek range to the Thai/Cambodia border. The border abounded with uniformed officials and police who just shrugged us past the first checkpoint. The next gauntlet was purchasing two entrance tickets (one Thai and the other Cambodian)

We then moved through a small Cambodian market that sold everything from handicrafts to “Alain Delon” cigarettes. It even had a few gold stores with much of the merchandise sourced from pawn shops at Cambodian Casinos which of course are heavily frequented by Thai gamblers. At the market a young Cambodian girl latched herself to our party, refused to accept no and we ended up engaging her as a guide for the day.

main staircase

Entering through a steel gate we commenced to ascend the first staircase, which was relatively difficult due to the sharp slope and the unevenness and disrepair of the stonework. The weather was cool with misty rain at times which only added to the atmosphere.

Buddhist Nun

We soon came across some of the modern realities and history of Khao Phra Vihaan – landmines. There were roped off areas with skull and cross bone warning signs. Parties of Cambodian mine clearers were hard at work. As we slowly ascended the monument the atmosphere of the place increasingly captivated us. At the middle of the monument we found a small Buddhist Shrine which had a resident Mae Chee (Buddhist Nun). Mali stopped to light incense and offer prayers.

Artillery Piece

Throughout the tumble down nature of the Monuments impressive stone reliefs were further evidence of Khao Phra Vihaan’s experience with modern times – two concrete lined bomb shelters constructed by the Khmer Rouge and an old artillery piece. We also came across several amputee Cambodian vendors selling flower garlands and soft drinks.

North-West Cambodia

When we reached the end of the complex we were presented with a magnificent view right across North-West Cambodia. Through the scuddy clouds you could see a still green terrain, dirt roads and the sheer drop down the mountain range into Cambodia.

It had been a magic visit. Not many visitors (though I believe it gets very crowded on weekends/Public holidays but I suppose what else is news) unlike Angkor Wat which we visited in 2004. But best of all it had atmosphere and for a few hours at least we held it in our embrace.

Of course Khao Phra Vihaan has now been discovered, but I hope that Thailand and Cambodia work out their differences and ensure that this very special place be preserved forever.

Bill