Archive for January, 2014

SOTM World Tour – Chiang Mai and Pai

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

995008_10153694685995241_2112312177_nChiang Mai proved memorable for two reasons.

Firstly, it’s the closest thing Thailand gets to being trendy in the Western sense, at least. It’s got American-themed burger joints, cute cafes run by Americans, sports bars that show Premier League football, and places to hang out in and listen to live blues or jazz.

Chiang Mai is the cool, trendy kid at school, the one with the best trainers who doesn’t have spots and gets the latest gadget the same day it’s released. But it’s also friendly, lets you come round and borrow its computer games, and makes you wish you were cooler, so you could have an excuse to spend more time together.

Secondly, it’s got great temples, but while we did do a bit of temple-hopping, we didn’t do too much. My three-temple maximum depends on how many days the temples are seen over, and how long we spend in each one. And, as I’m interested in Buddhism, whether or not Buddha is the main feature of the temple in question.

The highlight of Chiang Mai’s temples is the remarkable Wat Phra That which is located near the top of the mountain known as Doi Suthep. Consequently, people often call the temple Doi Suthep also. The top image was taken there.

Its location is interesting – among the many legends attached to this place, the strongest one is that a white elephant was given a religious relic to carry. It then walked up to this lofty spot, trumpeted three times, and died. The temple was built on the spot where it passed away.

You get up to it via a twisty, windy songtao taxi ride, and then you have to make the final part yourself, via the Naga Serpent Staircase.

The serpents look like this.

And the 300 steps they flank each side are like this.

At the very bottom I went back for a closer shot of these girls.

At the top is a fairly small area stuffed with gold-coloured Buddhas and other religious symbols. This stupa dominates the skyline.

There’s so much to look at, it’s quite overwhelming at times.

1506059_10153694592730241_1866804112_nThese bells are commonplace, and it seems as though you can write your name on the hearts that dangle from them. A variation on the theme of love locks, I suppose

People frequently make candle offerings and pray at various points around the temple.

1530389_10153694691380241_2130669176_nAnd you can be blessed by a monk in at least a couple of the smaller temple buildings on this site. My nephew Thaisaac, (Thai-Isaac, geddit?) who was still on his odyssey in Thailand with us at this point, and we were both blessed by another monk.

I grabbed a hip-height and therefore blind photo of this blessing. These people had bought a basket of goods from inside the door, and offered it to the monk, who then blessed them. Note the monk’s many tattoos.

1509059_10153694593680241_1620425049_nSpeaking of monks, we spotted them often, of course. Whether it was doing their daily chores…

996092_10153694566795241_317958591_n…or conducting their daily prayers, which I captured using my iPhone…

…or readjusting their robes…

1545865_10153694533480241_1118502188_n… or chatting to skinny white boys, they were everywhere, as you would expect.

1470249_10153576652560241_57563880_nThis chap gave an interesting insight into the life of a monk, at something called a “monk chat” where anyone can come do as the title suggests. The holy men get to practice their English and the foreigners who attend get an insight into monastery life. Several monasteries do this, apparently.

Our monk told us that he didn’t have all the answers to Buddhism, so he entered the monkhood to try and learn them. “I’m still learning,” he said.

He also said he shaved his head once a month, didn’t eat after noon, went to bed early and got up very early in the morning to pray, and missed being able to play sports, which he did prior to his life as a monk.

Disturbingly, he also told me that while on a trip to London, he’d visited the Emirates football stadium, and therefore supported Arsenal. I fear for his chances of enlightenment with allegiances like that.

Here’s more monks at prayer in one of Chiang Mai’s many temples. They are worth a look because they’re small and very beautiful, crammed with ornate decorations but you can be done with one in about 15 mins, so temple fatigue won’t set in too quickly.

Another site worth seeing in Chiang Mai is Wat Chedi Luang.

1530460_10153694538055241_829827194_n

It’s ruined, but still worth a look and there’s some Buddhist items of  interest around its periphery.

This was my favourite – an image of Tan Pra Maha Kajjana who was a monk so handsome that people mistook him for Lord Buddha. Once, an enlightened monk became corrupted because of thoughts he had upon seeing Tan Pra Maha Kajjana.

To stop all the trouble he was causing for being too handsome, our hero turned himself into a fatter, uglier monk so that no-one would fancy him.

Here he is, post transformation. I think he looks rather jolly.

While at Wat Chedi Luang, I saw a series of beautiful golden Thai Buddhas gleaming in the sun.

But I was more taken with the shadows they were casting, and I’m mindful of the fact that you can keep taking pictures of Buddha until the day you achieve enlightenment. It’s worth trying to think of different ways to photograph a similar subject. I liked how this one turned out.

Chiang Mai is also famed for its markets. Here’s Thaisaac and I at one, in which we bought some Christmas goodies for the folks back in England.

1557520_10153694699685241_1172688202_nAnd I managed to get some SOTM action in there as well, thanks to the excellent Michael Dewey, who blogs as Wanderlust Mike.

An American living in Thailand, he organised a meet up at the Focus Gallery, a coffee shop and bar, which was well attended. Thaisaac and I set about the crowd and we got a number of shots between us.

Here’s Michael’s SOTM.

31122013After Chiang Mai, we popped briefly to Pai. This was via the notorious 762 curves that the minibus you take has to negotiate on the journey from Chaing Mai.

This is during the two-and-a-half hour journey, so it’s a lot in a short space of time. Thaisaac was worried about yakking in the bus, but we were all fine, except for one lady who threw up in a bag.

Apparently, there’s always one.

When in Pai we hired motorbikes. Thaisaac was a bit wobbly at first, understandably, but the roads around Pai are good quality and quiet, so we were all able to ride around safely.

I’d never driven a bike myself until I was on Koh Lanta island a few weeks ago, but since then have fallen in love with two wheels, having never been much of a fan of bicycles. I now dream of getting a red Vespa when back in England.

While in Chiang Mai we met fellow travellers Josh Haftel and his lovely wife Natasha. Josh is a tour de force, and with the best beard this side of the Mississippi. His story comes from his time at the Burning Man festival, held in the Nevada desert.

I must also mention the trip Thaisaac and I took to the Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai. It rescues and cares for elephants who are often abused by their owners.

There is nothing, quite nothing like seeing a happy elephant.

1521421_10153707330765241_2000555735_nWell, would you want the job of scratching an elephant’s inner thigh?

This baby was hugely entertained by this loop of cord.

1525072_10153707162065241_1649450966_nThis is one of the elephant mahouts. Each one has a human assigned to it, and they spend all day with their animal, keeping it out of trouble. Occasionally, however, the elephants get rumbustious and the mahouts bear the brunt of this.

One had just been put in hospital for two days after it was thrown about by its elephant.

This chap was carving out an elephant as a group of them frolicked about nearby.

While babies always stick close to their protective mums, they also have aunties, other female elephants, who keep a close eye on the little ones. I mean little in the elephantine sense, of course.

1526910_10153707166305241_1462027427_nElephants eat a lot.

1535393_10153707171340241_2075628184_nWe got to feed them ourselves, and it was oddly addictive to have their nimble, fast, wet-ended trunks snuffle around your hands and whisk the fruit chunks away.

One part of our visit saw us wash the elephants in the river by chucking buckets of water over them. They seemed to love it and we certainly did.

1549279_10153707230790241_1227808019_n

1551609_10153707290690241_1642943795_nAnd finally – while in Pai Kate and I finally did something we’ve joked about for a while. The Korean Thing.

You see, in South Korea couples who have been dating for 100 days are allowed to dress the same. And I mean the same – exactly matching outfits. Shops will even sell his ‘n’ hers t-shirts, trousers, shoes etc. It’s taken very seriously and only after 100 days would a couple be ready to take this next important step in their relationship.

Pai seems to have cottoned on to this, for some reason. Maybe it’s not just a South Korean thing, although I was led to believe it was. But in Pai you can also buy his ‘n’ hers t-shirts.

So Kate and I bought a couple, which don’t exactly fit us but what the hell. Best 500 baht we’ve ever spent.

That’s all for this time. Next time I’ll do a round up of my time on some of the Thai islands, which includes time with Swedish girls, happy dogs, cheerful cats and beautiful sunsets.

SOTM World Tour – Bangkok

Friday, January 24th, 2014

When I was a boy, growing up in Malta, I often heard a song on the radio called One Night In Bangkok.

I loved it, recorded it onto a tape and then listened to it all the time. When I got into my teens I discovered it came from the musical Chess, the music for which was written by Benny and Bjorn from Abba.

Amusingly, there’s a lyric in One Night In Bangkok that goes: “If you’re lucky then the God’s a she.” I couldn’t work out what it said, so I used to sing: “If you’re lucky then they’ve got some sheep.”

Well, I was about eight.

Anyway, some 32 years later, I landed in Bangkok for the first time. And I loved it.

It’s fun. It’s crowded. It’s friendly. It’s polluted, cheap and occasionally smelly. Lots of people speak English. It is easy to travel around as a backpacker, so those seeking a challenge should look elsewhere.

But if you want a bloody good time, then spend much longer than one night in this crazy town.

Let me pick a few highlights from my time in Bangers, as I affectionately called it. First up, Chinatown. Incidentally the top image is Kate and me in the back of a tuk tuk, returning from a happy afternoon in that place.

It’s a wonderful, narrow labyrinth of shops, stalls, clothes, motorbikes, Hello Kitty phone covers, dried squid, handbags, and lots, lots more. You name it, you can buy it or eat it here. We had two bowls of tasty noodle soup, in a place where no-one spoke English and the paint was peeling off the walls and the electrics looked past retirement, for 40p each.

Here’s a typical Chinatown side street, and there are some which are narrower.

1383668_10153379074740241_719704391_nThe shops here all very well stocked.

582345_10153379084765241_846717404_nBikes squeeze in and out of the tiny, streets crowded by people, boxes, and other bikes.

Outside of Italy, I’ve never seen so many Vespas. They are hugely popular here, and many are quite old. I’ve decided to own one someday.

He looked like he’d done that before. At least, I hope he had.

Here’s a brand I’ve never heard of before, although it does have a familiar ring to it…

There’s so much choice in Chinatown that it’s impossible to make a quick decision.

Housewives and househusbands could spend hours in here.

You want wigs? They got wigs.

1174665_10153379073750241_983108897_nHappily Kate and I never got close to breaching my three-temple maximum during our time in the Thai capital. We went for quality over quantity, and it was an excellent move.

We took a trip on a crowded boat down the river to the marvellous Wat Arun.

It has a startling level of detail, its facade being incredibly intricate.

1385341_10153379049990241_469872795_n

1174578_10153379048060241_1012656437_nThe view from higher up the temple.

1393826_10153379051770241_1534753705_nAnd guess what – while at Wat Arun I found those sheep I used to sing about!

Continuing the animal theme, I came across these fellows. Never mind the identity of the fifth Beatle, who’s this fourth monkey?

1382415_10153352637875241_482481115_nAway from temples, Kate and I spent a lot of time on the streets of the legendary Khaosan Road and its adjacent streets, as we were staying nearby. Here she is about to feast on our favourite, mango with sticky rice.

1393572_10153379032010241_2084350870_nGrazing for street food is a smashing, and fun way, to fill your stomach with tasty treats, for very little cash.

1381841_10153379036325241_289259284_n

1378349_10153379018465241_174302835_n

1395946_10153379026920241_694358514_nIt may be street food, but someone’s still got to do the washing up.

Eating isn’t the only thing that goes down on Bangkok’s streets. Here I am – well, a bit of me – getting my first ever foot massage.

And that’s not all you can do on Bangkok’s streets. A mushroom-shaped button on the fly of my jorts (jean shorts) came off, because the hole it was stitched into became too big. So I found this lady sitting on the side of a busy road in Pra Athit with her sewing machine.

She actually used a lot of thread and a needle to close the hole up, and charged me an embarrassing mere 20 baht – about 40p.

As she was sewing, I could imagine her thinking: “This man’s an idiot. He needs a wife, because he’s so stupid he can’t even sew and is clearly going to die unless someone looks after him.”

I thanked her and retreated, with jorts that no longer exposed my pants, but with my pride somewhat dented…

Later on, Kate and I were joined by my 20-year-old nephew, Isaac, the son of my sister Antwanette. He’d never been out of Europe or backpacking before, so I figured it was time for him to Man Up and come on the road with us for a couple of weeks.

While we were waiting for him in arrivals, I spotted these chaps cleaning the airport windows.

And here he is, pictured straight off the plane.

1463894_10153560133230241_1133579641_nHe’s 6’4 so not exactly difficult to spot in a crowd. I remember him the day after he was born, when I could pick him up in my hands and when he was a lot pinker. He still cries a lot and wears a nappy, though. (Probably).

We had a lot of fun with Thaissac, as I began calling him. He took to the backpacking life like a trooper, booking buses and trains and picking up basic phrases with which to greet the locals.

We took him to Wat Pho, also known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha.

Here is the great, big, incredibly long idol, which looks good but doesn’t move much. And the Buddha.

1474502_10153674098285241_68273683_nThe Buddha is 46 metres long, is covered in gold leaf and is unforgettable.

The whole temple complex is filled with a dizzying array of Buddhas. This is a classic shot that I’ve seen done before, but thought I might as well get my own version done.

1530393_10153674230560241_1357652267_n And there are many indoor temples to be seen here too, which are incredibly splendid.

Back on the streets of Bangkok, Thaissac and I went to dunk our tootsies in a large fish tank, for them to nibble on.

It was an… odd experience. Bordering on the unpleasant at times, very ticklish, and not like anything I’d ever experienced before.

1470069_10153568546145241_1496097039_nI had LOADS of fish around me, as you can see here, while Thaissac had about 12.

1454649_10153568546365241_1809186530_nThen a large Thai lady came in, and solemnly gestured to Thaissac to move across to the next tank. He did so and immediately started yelping like a wounded sea lion. Turns out that particular tank was filled with very hungry fish.

While Thaissac was begging for mercy, the Thai lady banged on the glass wall dividing us, broke out into a grin and gave us the thumbs up. I laughed my head off while Thaissac prayed that he’d get out with all 10 toes. There’s a video of us both struggling to deal with the beasties, too.

At one point, Kate and I held a meet up in Bangkok, which was a lot of fun. Many travel bloggers and a few backpackers turned up for quite a popular meeting.

It turned out to be a Big Night Out, ending at around 4am, but before then I managed to get a few people to take part in SOTM. Here’s the excellent Steve Schreck, who writes at A Backpacker’s Tale.

And this is the lovely Kate Button, who had never revealed this story about her dad before.

And this is the inimitable Jeremy Foster, who writes at Travel Freak.

Finally, before Thaissac, Kate and I left town, we went to the Lumpinee stadium to watch some Muay Thai boxing.

This was an idea that I insisted upon doing. I’d read great things about it, and we weren’t disappointed. It was an amazing evening.

While the stadium is charmingly ramshackle, the organisation was pretty smooth. We were approached by a ticket seller draped in Muay Thai garb outside the stadium, who politely showed us a laminated sheet with a choice of tickets.

As advised, we went for the most expensive ones, priced at 2,000 baht, which are ringside. This isn’t a cheap ticket, but it’s serious value for money.

We were then whisked through to our seats inside, plastic chairs close to the ring, where all the foreigners sit. The interior does look like it might fall down soon, with patched-up corrugated roof, fans wobbling in the ceiling and lots of sweating, shouting Thais.

But the whole thing is hypnotising and it frankly looked and sounded exactly how I hoped it might. This stadium is actually closing next year, to be replaced by a new one elsewhere in the city, and while it’s always good to have new facilities, I fear that something will be lost when the action moves to plusher premises.

1491771_10153699118650241_1439802114_nBehind us were rows of mostly Thai men, who were betting in certain strictly-controlled areas. There were nine bouts, starting with teenagers and moving up through the age ranges, until we reached the main fight, which was bout seven.

As the action moved through the rounds, and the winner or loser was soon to be decided, the roars of the crowd crashed upon us like waves. It all seemed to depend on who’d bet on whom, and also which of a boxer’s family members were in the audience. I think I spotted a few mums here and there during the fighting.

I wasn’t able to move or stand up or use a flash, so while I took a few shots I was quite limited in what I could do photographically. Still, I managed to get a few decent shots.

There are lots of rituals attached to Muay Thai, and there is a clear emphasis on respect for one’s opponent and surroundings.

76856_10153699294705241_1929321929_nThis chap was the winner of bout seven, the main event of the evening.

1546335_10153699318885241_1444275655_nAfterwards, we were able to queue up and have our photo taken with him, rounding off a superb evening.

Next time, Kate, Thaissac and I head north to Chiang Mai, Pai and us two lads get tickled by the trunks of elephants.

SOTM World Tour – Melbourne

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

Even in a city as proud as Sydney, I was struck by how many people said: “Oh, you’ll love Melbourne.”

Adventurous Kate and I are very keen on our café culture. We like nothing more than finding a cool spot with nice coffee, “glamour beat” music playing (easy listening versions of classic songs etc) and good wifi.

This is the cue for us both to spend hours on our computers, facing each other but not talking to one another much, apart from Kate telling me something she’s read about a celebrity on People Magazine’s website, and me trying to explain just why Robin van Persie’s left foot has similar abilities to Harry Potter’s wand.

It works for us, anyway.

So it was with much excitement that we hit up Melbourne, and we weren’t disappointed.

It is filled with social establishments that look ramshackle from the outside and yet are chic on the inside.

This place, for example, is a perfectly respectable cafe in the daytime. At night, when it’s closed, it looks like the kind of place that hobos might break into for shelter.

We were staying in Melbers, as I liked to call it, with my old buddy Dave, who was about to marry his charming lady, the smashing Meg (and I’m happy to say they’ve recently Sealed The Deal).

So, having reacquainted myself with long-lost friends, and introduced them to my fiancée, they kindly not only gave us a comfortable room to stay in, but also a great tip by suggesting we visit Melbourne’s Laneways, which start next to Flinders Street Station.

This, incidentally, is a proud building in its own right.

Across the street and snaking away between all the chunkily historic buildings in the heart of Melbourne, the laneways are simply a series of streets as narrow as their name suggests.

But while they’re slim, they’re still a treasure trove of shops, arcades and cafés.

There was so much to see, we could have spent all day in just the laneways alone.

Although we didn’t go in it, I liked the look of this little eaterie.

And the arcades are pretty fancy too – lots of cute shops and high class goods sitting side by side.

Oh, and did somebody say cake?

cakeThis area often has the spaces between its shops and individual lanes filled by graffiti so loud you can feel it etching itself onto your eyeballs.

Speaking of which, Hosier Lane is famous for begin a spot where graffiti artists regularly go to town on its walls, and even its floor sometimes. It’s quite a sight.

You can’t stand still for too long in Hosier Lane, or else you might end up covered in spray paint.

I was pleased to see this red scooter there – perfect photo opportunity.

While Kate and I were walking through this area, I spotted a gang of young graffiti artists. I approached them and two agreed to take part in SOTM. They were top lads. Sean, on the left, is half-Maltese!

Here’s the photo I took of Drex, who is the chap on the right.

I spotted this photo when I was walking around that day too. I wonder what’s in his purse…

And this is one of those moments where I feel the tiniest bit like my favourite photographer, Henri Cartier Bresson. Check out the signage in the alleyway where this fellow is giving his tootsies a break.

Although I prefer to have people in my photographs, buildings can give me pleasure too. This is a typical example of much of the urban architecture in Melbourne, and it’s utterly charming, as you can see.

And I loved how the light looked in this street full of shapes. For some reason, as soon as I saw all that before me, I knew it’d look best in black and white. So that’s how I took the shot.

While in Melbers I was very pleased to be interviewed by Libbi Gorr who presents a Sunday morning radio show on  774 ABC Melbourne.

We had a great on-air chat about SOTM and words that have impacted upon people. I even got to speak to some callers about the things they’d heard which proved memorable to them.

Here’s Libbi’s own SOTM.

I also later met the lovely Hilary Harper, another presenter at the same radio station. She told this story which reminded me of painful days when trying to fit in at a new school. Happily she sounds like she eventually had some luck on that score.

Shortly after my chat with Libby, Kate and I had another meetup, at Ponyfish Island bar which is built on one of the supports of a bridge over Melbourne’s Yarra river. It’s worth a look not least for its quirkiness. It’s located around the area seen in the very top image.

Here’s one of the shots I got from there, which came from the lips of a druid, no less.

Finally, on our last day in the city we went to St Kilda, which is very popular and somewhere we were often recommended to visit. Here’s the beach.

Whilst there I got this shot of a woman sat alone in a cute little café – where else?

And check out the entrance to Luna Park amusement park which is in St Kilda. Really impressive and slightly nightmarish at the same time.

That’s it for this edition of my ramblings. After slurping up the last of our coffee, Kate and I then packed up for South East Asia, so I’ll talk about our adventures in Cambodia next time.

SOTM World Tour – Sydney

Thursday, January 2nd, 2014

 After spending time in the Northern Territory, which frankly can’t look that much different from when dinosaurs were running things, arriving in Sydney was a welcome return to the sweet trappings of modernity.

Our time in Sydders, as I affectionately called it, was to be brief – a mere five days – but we galavanted around and had a rare old time.

Our digs were in Bronte beach, a huge, immaculate and tasteful house run by the charming Lise, who confided in me with a sigh that everyone says her name wrong (it’s pronounced Lisa).

I’d previously been told by a colleague who used to live in these parts that the walk from Bronte beach to Bondi beach was really nice, so Adventurous Kate and I did just that. It was a memorable afternoon and no mistake.

Here’s some of the things we saw along the way (which do not include, much to Kate’s disappointment, a Speedo-sporting Hugh Jackman, who lives at Bondi).

That is Bronte beach itself, and there are plenty more eye-catching spots of coastline along the way.

dsc_0060The architecture here is smashing – the houses are really cute and colourful.

Finally Bondi itself appeared on the horizon.

 Kate and I managed to visit Manly beach too, and while it is another lovely part of the city, it affords you a super view of Sydney Harbour as you take the ferry out to it.

The world-famous Sydney Harbour bridge looks great at any hour – and Kate even walked over it!

Here’s Manly (I like to think I fit right in a place like that).

manlyAnd it was in Manly that I had THE ICE CREAM OF MY LIFE at the Royal Copenhagen store. Seriously. I’m not joking.

Best. Ice cream. Ever.

On the way back to Sydney Harbour, the night had almost won and so we had a whole new view of that lovely place.

Here’s that bridge again.

And the Opera House looks just as divine when it’s lit up.

harbournightWhile in Sydney I was tickled by the fact there are so many place names which match those found in London. There’s Oxford Street and Liverpool Street, for example.

And let’s not forget the gorgeous Hyde Park, a haven in the middle of the gleaming glass and stone pimples which are forever fixed onto Sydney’s face. But here in the park huge trees cast invitingly cool spots, and there are stretches of deep green and plenty of benches where you can pause and chomp down your lunch.

It’s also in Hyde Park that I came across some of Sydney’s snails. My advice is to keep out of their way, as they’re deceptively quick…

My time in Sydney yielded some great stories, like this slightly fruity one by the remarkable Jo, another moment from my all-too-brief time in Hyde Park.

Remember you can click on any SOTM image on this blog to visit the photo’s page and to learn the subject’s story.

In search of further SOTMs, Kate and I had a meetup at the Australian, a well-known watering hole not far from the harbour.

I heard some great stories that night. Lain, for example, took ages to think of something and I didn’t know if he would come up with anything – but then all of a sudden he pulled this corker out of the hat.

But I was most moved by Mary’s tale of something her mother told her once, when she wished that Mary had the autism which affects her brother.

Finally, at the end of our time in Sydders, I caught up with old friends Steve and Liz. They not only put us up for the night, but gave us our first proper shrimps from an Aussie barbie! Very tasty indeed.

barbieOn our last morning in Sydney, Steve kindly drove us out to Botany Bay, to see where Captain Cook first set foot in Australia (well, his landing party anyway, of which he was not the first to disembark).

As a history buff, this was very exciting for me. An entire nation was formed as a result of those moments, and of course not to everyone’s benefit.

There are plenty of information boards up and they do acknowledge the hardships endured by the indigenous Aborigines in the years following colonisation.

At this site is the retelling of an interesting tale which I didn’t know of, that details how the first Aborigines to spot Cook’s rowboat approaching the shore told him to go away and threw spears.

Cook and his men ignored this, fired upon the Aborigines (aiming to scare and then hurt, but not kill) and came ashore anyway.

Here’s where it happened.

A tale like this, of course, gives politicians, sociologists and historians plenty to chew over regarding what happened over the subsequent centuries, as other nations – and the British in particular – swept across the land which became Australia, creating disputes and debates which continue today.

Then, after a fascinating morning, it was off to the airport for a quick flight to Melbourne! More of that next time.