A Day in Udon Thani

Strange bus - Udon Thani

Last weekend I was lucky enough to celebrate Children’s Day in Udon Thani, around an hour’s flight from Bangkok. My company sponsor 25 children in a small village an hour or so from the city, which is very close to the Laos border. It was nice to be up in the hills, where the temperature was cool enough to wear jeans and a cardigan – I wish I had worn shoes as well – and to see a different side of life in Thailand.

Young Performer Children's Day Stage Lady watching Performances

Because it was children’s day there was a big party on, and all the kids were running around and there was plenty of smiley faces. Seeing how the children lived most of the time was pretty harrowing, and I didn’t take many pictures, as I was trying to get my head around it all, and felt it was a little invasive. One of the sponsored children is a boy of twelve who was severely disabled, I had tears in my eyes as my colleague translated the story of his life, but even if she hadn’t the strength it took to bring him up in such conditions was etched on his mother’s face.

We handed out gifts in the afternoon and their excitement at the sight of toys was infectious! I am used to standing out in the crowd thanks to my blonde hair  but some of the younger kids were so surprised by my appearance that they became frozen on the spot when the giant lady from England handed them a doll.

After this we visited two impressive temples in the region, one which had the most serene looking reclining Buddha I have ever seen, and another which was filled with unusual statues, including a tree from which naked women grew.

Peaceful BuddhaLooking up!TempleLady TreeAdoration of a GodTemple Puppies!

Bangkok Shopping Saturdays – Ballet Shoes

There is nothing that finishes off that smart/casual outfit better than a pair of ballet pumps. I visited the recently opened Silom Complex (a mini Central shopping mall just near Sala Daeng BTS), and I noticed this cute ballet shoes shop. They sell a great range of quality leather pumps and sandals. In the run up to Christmas I am always  on the lookout for sparkly accessories, and Ballet Shoes did not disappoint,   there are the nicest pair of black glitter shoes just as you enter the store AND they stock a UK size six!

Damnoen Saduak Floating Market – Is it worth it?

Floating markets near Bangkok are the most popular half-day tours out of the city. In a morning you get whizzed to the countryside by mini-van and get a taste of life on the river, but when you decide where you want to go, it’s important to think about how genuine you want your time to be.

The first floating market I ever went to was Amphawa Floating Market almost 18 months ago, accompanied by my Thai teacher. It was great to experience the market with someone who could speak the language and help me explore in a way that no-one else did, but it wasn’t very picturesque. Everyone coming to Thailand has seen the images of the famous floating market at Damnoen Saduak, and those are the same snaps people want to show their friends to make them jealous, pretty boats selling bananas and coconuts, ladies in straw hats – basically a huge photo opportunity. There is no doubting that this is exactly what Damnoen Saduak delivers. My trip there in late October was great for my companion, a keen photographer who spent at least half an hour standing on a bridge, camera focussed on the small canals below. Her pictures are amazing.

But when you are walking around, the atmosphere is lacking charm. Apart from the occasional boat selling food, most of what is on offer is tacky touristy items – t-shirts and plenty of elephant themed trinkets that you can find in Central Bangkok. Once I had got my half a dozen shots of the floating market, I was bored. I didn’t like being hassled by people trying to sell me Tiger Balm for my mother, I didn’t want to hold a big scary snake and whilst I was happy to taste a coconut pancake (they are really good), I didn’t want to take 50 home to my family. During my visit to Amphawa I was able to buy plenty of bags of fresh fruit, vegetables, herbs and nuts, not so great for tourists, but fantastic for someone based here. I also got an amazing tour of the temples nearby, where my teacher and her colleagues went to make merit. You don’t get a better introduction to Buddhism and Thai food than I got during my trip there, but I realise that not everyone is lucky enough to have their own personal guide. For most tourists Damnoen Saduak is handy, being open every morning, whereas Amphawa can only be visited at weekends.

Damnoen Saduak may be the floating market that everyone talks about, but it  feels disappointing. Like Christmas, the build up was far more exciting. I really enjoyed my trip to the coconut sugar factory, even though it was really just a shack by the side of the road.  The smell and taste was fantastic and it was interesting the centuries old method of extraction. The ride through the canals was great fun, shooting through the water on a long-tail boat seeing the people who live on and around the area, but sadly going so fast that my photos didn’t come out very well. It’s once I got there that my bubble burst. Below are some other snapshots from the morning to give you an idea of what it looks like.

I think that as long as you manage your expectations and have enough time on your hands it is worth experiencing Damnoen Saduak, but if I had to go back to one of the two floating markets I have visited (there are more!) then I would pick authenticity over photogenicity and go to Amphawa.

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A week in Singapore

Just back from a reconnaissance mission in Singapore with work, visited the popular neighbourhoods, drank cocktails most nights, experienced Singaporean micro brewing, did a media tour of Marina Bay Sands and took over 900 pictures. Most of them are work related, but I snapped a few for the personal collection. It was a great city, very different from my beloved Bangkok and apart from the prices (if you stick to chicken rice and satay it’s possible to budget) a fantastic way to spend a few days.

Keane, Bangkok 4th October 2012

The first time I heard of Keane I was sitting in my flat in Toulouse where I was spending a year as a teaching assistant. From the description in my copy of Heat Magazine they sounded like the kind of band I would love, so as soon as I returned to England I purchased ‘Hope and Fears’. Their single ‘Everybody’s Changing’ was playing on music channels that blared out of our sitting room, one of the things all of us could agree to watching.

I did not know that Keane’s first album would become the sound of my summer. It was 2004 and I was about to turn 21, I was saving up for a ticket to New York by working two jobs, weekdays in an insipid high street jewellers and serving drinks every Friday and Saturday at The Fire Station, best nightclub in town (there were only two). Keane played Glastonbury in the rain, and I was there in the front row with one of my best friends, both of us looking like drowned rats, appearing on  BBC 2 doing an embarrassing dance which everyone I knew saw, and can still be found during the first five minutes of this YouTube video.

The most significant thing about this summer was the number of us living under one roof. My father had remarried and for one reason or another, all five children from this blended family (seriously, is there no nicer way of saying this?!) were under the same roof for three months. For any of you who have had the pleasure of watching ‘7th Heaven’, it was about as far removed from the Camden’s as you can get. Five young adults under one roof does not make for peaceful living, but I remember nights out with my sisters, awkward but entertaining family meals where we wound each other up something silly and many childish pranks that we probably wouldn’t want to own up to.

Those links between music, memories and emotion has been researched and as someone who still listens to a song I really like on repeat, I reinforce this more than most. When I found out Keane were going to play in Bangkok, emotions from the summer of 2004 came rushing back to me. My favourite thing about our minds is that the bad times really do fade, so I can only remember the positive things about those few months, especially as it was one of the last times I spent so much time with my UK family.

Keane in Bangkok was a fantastic experience. They were so British and I was lucky enough to be standing behind possibly the most enthusiastic, wave your hands in the air, sing a long to every song, all the way from Hastings fan in Bangkok. This made the experience feel so much more like a gig should, and the rest of the crowd, predominantly Thais, were just as vocal. Moonstar studios is a pain to find, especially in the rainy season, but I would trek there again to hear British music and be reminded of times gone by.

On their new album my favourite track is Sovereign Light Café, such a cheerful melody with lyrics that lead me to look back to the end of my school days. It’s nice to spend a short while reminiscing, but life is non-stop at the moment: I am preparing for a trip to Singapore at the end of the month and my girls holiday in November with always, always more to look forward to.

Trying to bond with the Khao San Road

I’ve been in Bangkok for almost two years now but I have so far failed to form an attachment to the KSR (apparently this is what the cool kids call it. I would not know. I am not this kind of cool).  When I go there I feel old and grumpy. I don’t want to spend my time surrounded by burnt and bitten teenagers in their beer label vests. Even the flash-packers drive me mad. I don’t care that you have enough time and money to spend three months ‘exploring Asia’, although that could be a teensy bit of jealousy talking. So far the best solution has been to avoid the area completely. That was, until my boss told me that I would be writing about it this week.

So off I trudged on a Wednesday morning, with only my Nancy Chandler Map as company. It’s a good time to visit the Khao San – pronounced like Cow not Koh, this isn’t an island people – even though I fantasize about all these dreadful people being trapped on one, Lost style… At 11am most of the drunks are still asleep, which takes away at least one layer of what turns me off this famous street. It did not stop the hawkers though. In my first half an hour there a beggar touched my arse and a tuk tuk driver gave me a Chinese burn. To be fair to the tuk tuk driver, he was also trying to pull me out of the moving traffic, but it still bloody hurt!

I walked around for an hour and a half before my first appointment (part of my job is reviewing hotels). I spent a lot of time worried about not being in the shade because it happened to be that magical time of the day during rainy season where the sun burns through the clouds and my skin. I couldn’t tell which restaurants looked better than others (all same same according to any Thai you ask) and I was getting rather depressed by the whole thing.

Then I stumbled across Wat Chana Songkhram, a temple at the end of the Khao San. It’s so different from the other wats I have visited, the monks were meditating in the windows of their lodgings, studying together in the classroom and speaking with the children at the compound school. It’s all rather magical, and so peaceful. What I liked more than anything was that there were no other westerners there. If you head down into the old town that never happens.

Thankfully I was not just saved by a temple discovery.  I have also found the following on/near the Khao San that go someway to improve my relations with the street:

  1. The coffee shop/bar called Fabulous. Yes, it lives up to its name. Delicious crepe cakes and honey toast. It’s just off Khao San in a really quiet courtyard. Inside is a bit like being on Friends.
  2. My friend Alex took me to Roof Bar. It includes one thing that people love about KSR, cover bands playing Oasis. However the drinks are slightly more expensive meaning the crowds are slightly less annoying. I had a fab time here, even though it’s bang in the middle of the street.
  3. Rambutree! How can such a street exist so close to the KSR?! I plan to go back and check out some of the great restaurants and bars on this horse-shoe shaped road.
  4. The street food. Step away from the Pad Thai people, and find the lady making fresh spring rolls in front of you, or the grilled chicken man. YUM.

So, despite the fact that I am not yet in love with this place, I can see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. There is so much more to this area than the neon Burger King sign and the wooden frog sellers. I shall be back soon, I’ve been recommended Bombay Blues as an evening hangout. Maybe it can be number six on my list. If I go back again, maybe I can even make a KSR top ten. You’ve gotta have hope.

Eye, Eye – Laser Surgery in Bangkok: Guest Blogger

I am a longstanding (read: longsuffering) friend of Claire’s – also based in Bangkok. Some two weeks ago, I underwent laser eye surgery at TRSC (one of Bangkok’s leading LASIK clinics). I have waited this long to write so that I can confidently express my joy at being able to see. I didn’t think it fair to regale the internet with euphoric tales of 20:20 vision until secure in the knowledge that this was indeed the case.

All in all, my experience has been fantastic. Claire accompanied me and held my hand whilst I read the traumatic list of side-effects — ‘loss of eye’ was mentioned a disturbing number of times. More importantly, she escorted me home high as a kite on Valium (me, not her!) and in splendid Lady Gaga-style goggles.

The surgery itself was fine. After being given the Valium (wonderful invention), you are put in a very comfortable chair and given numbing eye drops for about 45 minutes – a nurse will also hold your hand if you sit there weeping softly like I did. The procedure takes just minutes; I had PRK, which involves removing a layer of corneal tissue (I know: vom). The worst part was the doctor performing some sort of windscreen wiper-type dance on my eyeballs. Nothing was painful at any time but the experience was bizarre and uncomfortable to say the least. But at least it is damn quick and the doctors were brilliant and tolerant: I was very irritating patient.

The laser part is very fast. I had the phrase ‘Beam me up, Scotty’ in my head the entire time (not hugely helpful but it kept me amused). Be warned: the smell of burning flesh is strong. My advice? Just don’t breathe in. You are then given protective contact lenses to wear for a week and sent away in the goggles, looking like a sad panda. My sight was very good straight away. This coupled with being high on Valium made for a very annoying taxi ride home for Claire (“I can see! Look how beautiful trees are! Oh the wonders of the world!” Etc etc).

The goggles are crap and uncomfortable but I was lucky to have lovely friends to look after me in the first 24 hours. The doctors prepare you for your vision to get progressively worse over the first few days, and they were certainly right there. My vision was particularly bad on day 3 – my eyes were constantly watering and I could barely see. This is because the corneal tissue cells are growing back and until they are fully formed the surface of the eye is all bumpy, making for bad vision and a grumpy Esme.

I now have 20:20 vision and have ceremoniously disposed of my glasses and contact lenses. I would 100% recommend the procedure and the clinic I went to (in particular the doctors/ nurses/ wonderful security guard). I was lucky – for me, the side-effects were minimal and I thought the procedure was bearable and totally worth it. In fact it was eye-deal (I know, I’m sorry)!

Bangkok’s International Festival of Dance and Music

I am starting to get excited about Bangkok’s 14th International Festival of Dance and Music. I love ballet and opera, it’s one of the few things I still really miss from London. Last year I went to see Le Corsaire by Mariinsky Ballet and Orchestra at the Thailand Cultural Centre.

It’s great to have the opportunity to see some of the best performers in the world dance, but last year the venue was half-empty. When the Russians came to London, tickets sold out months in advance. I always find it sad when events like these have lots of empty seats – I feel they should be sent to schools or societies to encourage young people to discover new things. As always the dancing was breath-taking, despite the dancers having less room to leap (the stage is smaller here in Bangkok).

This year I have my heart set on seeing Madame Butterfly and the Baltic Dance Theater. There are also performances of Swan Lake, Carmen as well as performers from theatres and companies in such places as Argentina, Brazil, and India. The festival runs from the 10 September – 14 October 2012 and more information can be found here.

I hope to see more people there this year enjoying the music and dancing. These kind of performances are a great way to escape into a different world and explore another culture.