Category Archives: A Life Upcountry

Revisiting Bangkok through Google Earth Street View

Wandee Building from Street View

Wandee Building Snapped in 2002

wandee 1a
You imagine something in mind, and then Google comes up with it. I took a snap of the Wandee Building in Chaengwattana-Pakkred Street 33, way back in 2002. When I wanted to see the building through Google Earth Street View, within seconds, I could navigate to it and could identify the similarities and the changes. In 1989, Wandee used to have a small, cute,  mini mall. In 2002, it had a Tyre Shop. Now perhaps something else is there. But yes, this is how there is a temporal dimension given to the spatial address. What is important is that this is a smaller street in the Nonthaburi province and Google has succeeded in capturing the images of streets seamlessly. Every street, every building is important, and for a nostalgic me, this technology is an windfall.

Caroline Wozniacki Goes to Thailand

Caroline Wozniacki, the world’s number one female tennis player, was back in Thailand recently to take part in the World Tennis Invitation Hua Hin 2012. This was her second time to take part in this exhibition match in the seaside resort of Hua Hin (see my report from last year). Caroline has really fallen in love with the country and the people. She didn’t just come over for the tennis match as she came here early with her parents to celebrate the new year. Her boyfriend, world No.2 golfer Rory McIlroy, arrived a few days later.

I thought that this was only her second time in Thailand as last year she was telling everyone that she had never been before. However, at the press conference she revealed that she has been back quite a few times. She told reporters, “I’ve been to Thailand six or seven times. I’m basically half Thai”. Caroline went on to say that she loves the people and the culture. During this trip she was able to ride horses on the beach at Hua Hin, play with elephants, cook some Thai food and enjoy a spa at the InterContinental which she described as “unbelievable”.

At the exhibition match, Caroline played against Victoria Azarenka, on the left of this picture, who is the world’s number three player. The event took place at the InterContinental Hotel’s Centennial Park in Hua Hin on New Year’s Day.  Both Victoria and Caroline entertained the crowd with their skills and also off-court humour. At one point they got together to do a little dance. Victoria won the match in straight sets 6-2, 7-5. After the match she told the crowd,  “Thank you so much for having me in Thailand. You know, it was the first time and I enjoyed my time I hope everybody enjoyed our match and I hope to be back soon”.

Also playing at the exhibition match was world number 18 John Isner from America and former world number 9 Paradorn Srichaphan of Thailand. Paradorn has been retired for a few years now and although he looked lean and fit, he was sweating and was visibly tired. However, he played a good game against the American and surprised everyone by winning 6-4, 7-5. At the end of the match, John told the crowd, “I really had a good time here. I will stay in Thailand for a few more days and then go to Sydney to play in a warm-up tournament before the Australian Open.”

At the start of the World Tennis Charity Invitation Hua Hin, each of the players, and golfer Rory Mcllroy donated 100,000 Baht to help flood victims. In fact the whole event this year was in aid of charities helping with flood relief. You can view more of my pictures from this charity match on my Facebook Page. Later this week I will be writing about some of the places that I visited in Hua Hin on this trip. So, keep an eye on and

International Car Free Day 2011 in Thailand

22nd September has been designated as International Car Free Day. All around the world, people have been making the effort to not use their cars today, but instead use public transport or even get on their bicycle. Thailand has been taking part in World Car Free Day now for the last five years. To begin with, only major cities such as Bangkok and Chiang Mai organized bike rallies in order to promote alternative modes of transport. However, as word has spread, many more provinces have organized their own events.

Last Sunday, Samut Prakan organized their first Car Free Day Event. Nearly 800 local cyclists came together at the City Hall and then took part in a cycle rally around the city. Never before have so many bicycles been seen on our streets. It was really a great feeling to be a part of this. As you know, I have recently bought my own bike and have been using it a lot around town instead of taking my car. It has given me a lot more freedom as I don’t need to worry about where I can park my car. Nor do I get stuck in traffic jams any more.

In the past, if you rode a bicycle people felt sorry for you as if you didn’t have enough money to buy a motorcycle. But, attitudes are changing. You see more people cycling these days. You also see a lot more cycle clubs where people go out on trips in groups. For myself I am not that serious about it. It is more about convenience for me. I have a bag on the back of my bicycle so I can go out and buy some supplies at the local mini mart. The last few weeks I have even started to cycle to school instead of walking.

So far I haven’t been very far on my bicycle. The longest distance that I have cycled was about 25 kms. I am not exactly that fit so I am not sure if I can keep going all day. But, I am playing with the idea of cycling to Samut Sakhon for the day and then maybe come back by train. Another thing that I have been doing more often is putting my bicycle into the back of the car. I have to take off the front wheel but it is very quick. This is making some of my Bangkok day trips a bit more interesting. I have even been going into Bangkok with my bike on the sky train. I am beginning to enjoy that too.

According to the Energy Minister, quoted in The Nation, “If only 10 per cent of 4 million vehicles in Bangkok is parked at home and the owners use public services once a week, this could save fuel by 1.6 million litres a day or about Bt64 million.” It is doubtful that they will manage to get 10% of cars off the roads any time soon. For that to happen we need an extensive public transport system. It also doesn’t really help much that the government are offering tax rebates for first time car buyers.  The billions in lost revenue could have been spent elsewhere. Maybe even subsidising bicycles and more building bike lanes!

Making an Ubon Ratchatani Candle

Imprinted Candles at Candle Parade

In remote Ubon, Thailand’s eastern most province, tourists are usually rarer than a vote for the Democrat Party and the laid back locals seems to like it this way. The wilderness province even boasts Thailand’s most spectacular natural site yet is happy not to tell anyone about it. However once a year this changes as the rains comes down.

Ubon’s main claim to fame is its traditional Candle Festival. Called Ubon Ratchatani Candle Festival the Tourist Authority of Thailand seems to be trying to rename it the Thai Candle Festival, as at first other cities in Isaan, Korat, Roi Et so on started to have one, and now they can be found from Supanburi to Chiang Mai. A Thai language forum has a post entitled, The Origin of the Thai Candle Festival, to which commenter’s quickly identify as “tourist money”.

Ubon’s tradition then may have been raped and pillaged for filthy luger, but at the moment the Ubon festival still is by far an utterly unmatched month long spectacle compared to the paltry one day phoney traditions in other cities.

The origin of the festival comes from the Buddhist Retreat, held for 90 days during the Wet Season. Traditionally rice planting was done in the wet season and the flooded paddy fields seeded. The crops were highly vulnerable and villagers asked Buddhist monks not to leave their temples each morning collecting alms, walking through the fields destroying the young crops. The monks duly agreed to stay in their temples for the period studying and meditating and in appreciation of this local farmers presented the monks with a sufficient supply of candles to light their monasteries for the 3 months.

Last year I covered the festival in Roi Et and it left me wondering how the amazing candles were made, so this year I ventured to Ubon, not just to see the festival but investigated the whole manufacture process.

The candles are made at workshops in several temples, which have been selected to be candle manifacturing centres, these are located all over Ubon province. There are two methods of making candles, by imprinting or by carving, each temple specialises in one method or the other. I visited one temple workshop specialising in each

Candle being Carved

Carving a candle
Candles usually represent a scene from Buddhist mythology, often with fanciful monsters and demons, and usually telling a story. The theme of a candle for the year is agreed upon by the village/temple/association ect and an initial plan drawn up. The manufacture process usually begins about a month before the main parade.

Initially the plan of the candle is sawn into shape out of plywood, onto this coconut husks are used to fill out the 2 dimensional shapes to 3 dimensions and this is covered in plaster of paris forming the rough shape. The secret ingredient is then added, a thin coating of a zinc based mixture, to make the wax grip the plaster of paris. Next the wax is added, it is formed into plates up to 6cm thick plates of varying size, the still warm and pliable wax plates are folded and shaped around the plaster. It is then ready for carving.

The carving is is done by a mixture of artisans and apprentices, it takes a decade or more to become a master candle carver. In lei of this some temples field two candles not one at the festival, the second smaller candle being an apprentice’s candle.

Carved candles at the festival

The Imprint Method.
One of the drawbacks of carving a candle is it’s an expert job, some villages, or organisations such as universities that participate either lack the money or expertise to commission a carved candle or wish people to participate in the manufacture itself, so it feels a local group effort.

The imprint method mirrors the carving method up to the point where the wax is added to the candle then it becomes a very different method. Tens or even hundreds of thousands of thin paper like pieces of about 5mm thick wax are made and each is imprinted with a patterned shape with a hot stamp. The pattern is carefully cut out and using drops of wax it is stuck to the zinc surface. These thin patterned leaves are built up in layers of scales to create the shape. This job requires dozens of people to work for weeks, making the wax sheeting, imprinting, cutting out and sticking the individual leaves

The finished candles methods then compete in separate categories in the festival. Competition is hot between the rival makers to outdo each other each year and novelties are common, such as fielding a uniquely coloured candles or spectacular monsters. The candles are paraded in Ubon several times over the 2 parade days, both day and light show night parades, and then left in the streets around Tong See Muang Park for week for public viewing. For the last few years the National Wax Sculpture Exibition has been held there too by top modern scultures from around the world, so the best of the ancient art and the modern art it spawned can be viewed side by side.

Imprint candle being made
top left: sheets of wax added to candle, top right: wax stuck to zinc exterior, mid left: imprinted wax cut out, mid right: plywood, coconut shell and plaster stages, bottom left: imprinted leaves ready to attach, bottom right: anyone can help

Yet Another…. New Year’s Vacation

(The backpacker capital of Southeast Asia – Khao Sarn Road)

Well, it was that time of the year again to say good-riddance to my work-desk, dusty computer, English students, wife (ok…only temporarily like..), and iron out a few groovy shirts, pack me backpack, gel me hair and head for The City of Noodle Soups & Nose-jobs, the one and only Bangkok. Planning meanwhile a new years hols that was gonna be one beer-filled time out on the razz.

A short one it was destined to be however, as the wife (Ms Su) had already written up my itinerary in black and bold which clearly stated that I was due on a Bangkok bus to her hometown of Nakhorn Sawan on New Years Day before lunchtime. There was no intentionally forgetting the appointment this year round. Poor-old me I only had two nights, it was already the 30th.

Jumping off the Suphanburi – Bangkok passenger van along Ratchadamri Road near Khao Sarn, I headed for the comfort of a sweet cost-saving room along Samsen Road not too far away. I don’t know about you but if I travel alone, I always prefer guesthouses; and that’s not cause I’m just a Cheap Charlie Scotman, I just enjoy getting the chance to meet new faces. Checking in at 300baht a night with the sun almost setting, it was sure time to sit outside order a beer, squash a couple of cockroaches and tell some Indian vendor that I didn’t fancy buying any nuts from him.

Not too long did I have to wait before my buddie Mr Ed from Pathumthani finally arrived, and that was an excellent excuse to order a couple more bevies ..for the road (to Khao Sarn that is..) and experience for ourselves the sights and sounds of this backpacker haven – renowned for its fisherman pants, hair-beads (and dodgy hair-dos), kebabs, hairy armpits and cocktail buckets. And not forgetting of course, that not such extinct species the ‘scheming tuk-tuk driver’ who loves nothing more than explaining to all the hapless backpacking travelers, something along the lines of “Hey you mister, where you go? I smell you no shower many days. Come on I take you, good soapie bath, good ladies, good massage, good service. I make special for you, you pay two ladies and get one free”.
Should you reject his offer, he’ll advise instead either a 10 baht trip to the Big Buddha Temple (with a tailor shop visit included) or a 250 baht ride to the Jatujak Weekend Market.

For the night of New Years Eve, Khao Sarn was totally packed out and not just with foreigners – in fact, I would say that at least 75% of the crowds hanging around the streets, walking up and down were in fact trendy young Bangkokians. Fortunately, we did go to Khao Sarn for the Countdown and not the Santika Pub along Ekhamai Road were over 50 folk perished that very night in a horrific fire which made world headlines (total is now up to 64). Luckily, I very seldom hit that area of the capital anyway, as I detest paying stupid prices for a small bottle of beer.

It’s like the Tsunami disaster, most of the awfully unfortunate foreign victims who met their end that morning were 1) well-off enough to stay down on the beach 2) family-friendly folk who were up early in the morning for a stroll. As for most of the tourists who survived – well, they were saving money by renting some cheap gaff well away from the beach half-way up a mountain and/or were not up early for a morning stroll along the beach as they had been out on the pish the night previous.

It was an all right New Year’s out, but I was more knackered than actually intoxicated by the time it was for me hit the bed sheets, at the very average hour of something like 3.

Up around mid-day, I found my buddie Ed downstairs sipping his coffee before I had a couple of cups meself. Looking at the watch and realizing that I was already a few hours late for the bus station, I said my cheerios to Ed and jumped in a taxi for the bus terminal and the trip to Nakhorn Sawan. Fortunately, my taxi-driver this time around was a quiet type and not one of those (been extremely common lately) who (as soon as they find out you understand Thai) ramble on non-stop for the entirety of the trip about either how friggin bad the PAD are or what friggin monstrosity Thaskin is.

A few hours late in Nakhorn Sawan, I was quickly picked up by the brother-in-law. Arriving at the wife’s home, it was as it is every year, the huge garden was decorated out, there was a fab home-made buffet and not forgetting the mandatory karaoke (even with a small stage!). Before I even had the chance to sample one of mom’s KFC-like fried chicken legs (often mis-spelled as ‘fried children legs’ in the odd upcountry restaurant) I was being egged on to sing a couple of Thai folk songs I knew by heart. Even though the sound system was as dodgy as my enthusiasm to sing, the family were happy enough with the performance – in fact, I think they were more impressed with my actual return to Nakhorn Sawan after a one year absence. So, after me flimsy karaoke renditions it was time to get back to the table, delve into some very edible snacks and of course swig a couple of bottles of Thailand’s fave drink, Chang Beer.

That night and some of the next day I got the exact kind of questioning I knew was coming “Steve what are you and Su going to do with your plot of land?” or/and “When are you gonna build a house on the land?” What it is, is that mom divided up all her land earlier this year and dished it all out to her children. Pretty jammy like, the wife (in a kind of lucky land draw) picked the best and biggest piece of them all. However, all the pieces of land are like jigsaw pieces, so if we did eventually move to her hometown, I’d be so close to home that singing karaoke would probably turn into a nightly village feature. This year, we’ll give some more thought to building a house there, but for me I’m happy enough where I am at the amount.

It wasn’t back to Bangkok yet, and that next day and night we spent at the fantastic Khlong Lan National Park in Kamphaeng Phet province; a province I had never been to before. Going there is worth a blog on its own, so experiences for that day and night can wait for the next blog.

Upcountry this New Years kinda brought back fond memories of the same time 4 years ago. It was the fun of that New Years that gave me the idea to write my first ever blog for (see A New year Upcountry). Never did I know then that 4 years later I would be making a full-time living out of writing.

Ok, I know it’s a little late, but Happy New Year!

BTW, visit every Monday where I am reposting some of my older blogs from 4 years ago with new ideas and photos. Richard is posting some of his as well as some new blogs about life and culture in Thailand.