Friday 21 December 2012

Humble beginings - Vegetable Patch

I have just moved into a new place in Canberra, Australia.
The house is typical of the area and built around 1974/5. So it is about 37 years old, solidly built, but in need of some TLC and some "modernisation". The previous own did a quick and dirty budget style makeover which included a new deck at the back and a re-fit of the kitchen. Both of those need re-doing and will be the subject of future postings.The whole house is in need of a paint both inside and out.
I have a nice big garden which is also in serious need of TLC.
The property has been rented out for almost 10 years, to the same tenants, as far as I can tell with only minor repairs being done. They were good tenants but the garden is surviving rather than flourishing.
To cut a long story short, I moved in on December 10 with the intention to redecorate what I can, renovate what I can, get experts in when I cannot and get the house and garden looking presentable again.
I really enjoy growing and eating my own produce so getting some vegetables and herbs growing was a priority. Canberra has a short hot summer and thus it is already almost too late to get some of the summer crops in, certainly to grow from seeds, so I have had to buy seedlings to get some things established.
Also with a tight deadline, I had only 10 days in total here before heading off for 2 weeks, I didn't have much opportunity to prepare the garden beds and the garden has to compete with other top priorities like fixing leaking taps and cleaning out junk and the work on the house.
There is an area that has been previously used for vegetables. It faces North, to maximise the sunlight, it has been cultivated in the past so it is easy to dig. It is also covered in weeds and dominated by a medium sized tree which provides too much early morning shade.When I investigated the area I found the soil to be dry, basically dust, and contaminated with rocks and waste building materials. Not a very good start, it needs a solid digging over, the larger material sieving out and lots of organic matter going back in. All jobs for another time.

I am standing in the Vegetable patch, it is the area in the foreground before the pathway.
I started watering and had my first set back. The soil is so poor that the water barely penetrates the soil. I have now been watering 3 times a day for a week and I can still take a hand trowel dig it in and find dry soil at the bottom of the hole.
At my local weekend market I bought a range of seedlings to put in to the ground. These included Tomatoes and Chilli, plus a variety of herbs including Thyme, Basil, Oregano, French Tarragon and Chives. I then rigged up a watering system and a timer on the tap. By the time I go away I should be able to leave the watering to the timer so that I come back to healthy looking plants.

 Once the watering system was in place I found some areas that were getting watered but did not have any plants. I have thrown some Sunflower, Coriander and Sweet Corn seeds in those places - just in case.
It is a very small beggining, but in the new year I will have the opportunity to clear the weeds and start to condition the soil and get some organic material into it. By the time I am preparing to plant the winter crop I hope to have a much better vegetable garden that can really start producing some nice food.

Sunday 4 November 2012

Sunday Part 2: Markets

Despite being worn out from Elephant riding there was still more to do in Chiang Mai that afternoon. On Sundays they close some streets to traffic and have a large Market. This is mainly a bric a brac market with handicrafts and trinkets and clothes and such. You see similar in many parts of the world but this was huge in scale. In fact if you frequent these types of markets, certainly in Australia, what is on sale is very familiar, but also very cheap.
There are also plenty of food stalls and massage beds set up.
Thai food stalls - without crowds!

Lady's clothing stall. I wanted to buy one cos they just looked so nice.

Musicians - buskers
So I hobbled up to the markets as I now had sore thighs from Elephant riding and a broken toe.
I wandered around and had some nibbles and took in the sights. I didn't buy anything, but if ever you are in Thailand and Chiang Mai is at the end of your trip it is the place to spend the last of your Thai Baht on goodies to take home. Note: Sunday walking street in Chiang Mai.
The rain came down and the streets magically cleared.
Time for a beer I thought but everyone else had the same idea and instead I explored Wat Phantao which has relics of the Lord Buddha. It is a fabulous temple, visually appealing and I am sure a religious experience to Buddhists.

The Bludger did go out after that and have a massage but for me the day was basically ended.

Sunday Part 1: In which I get to ride a "Nelephant"

During my travels on Saturday I had booked myself into a days Mahmout training and Elephant riding. Supposedly a full days tour. A Mahmout is an Elephant handler.
I was picked up on time from my Hotel and we drove around picking up other people for the tour group. For two people we had to wait for 30 minutes as they were not awake when the tour bus arrived. I got angrier and angrier and was on the point of rioting when two "lads" turned up. They both looked the worse for wear, were obviously hungover and as they talked I learned that they had been partying all night. The Bludger is not a patient person and has a low tolerance to waiting.
Our first stop was an Orchid Farm. I paid attention for a little while, but shortly gave up on Orchids and used the loo (never let an opportunity go by when on a bus) and had a coffee in the cafe. I chatted with our tour guide who after 5 minutes was wanting to set me up with one of his female relatives. Maybe that would have been OK but it never eventuated.
An Orchid. Purpulus peopleus eaterus from memory
Then it was back on the road and we headed to the Elephant Park. We had a short walk through rice paddies to the Elephants and then were asked to change into our Mahmout gear. This comprised of Thai "fisherman" style trousers and a loose fitting top and a sash belt. I felt more like a Pirate than an Elephant rider and the get up would be ridiculous pretty much anywhere else.
In full Mahmout gear
We were given a short briefing on how to control the elephants. This involved the use of words for forward, back left, right and stop plus the use of a cane with a hook on the end held in particular ways to reinforce the commands all accompanied by kicking the ears. Later when I got onto the elephant I discovered that the barb leaves a scar on the elephant as it can penetrate the skin. I have mixed feelings about this, but I will say that the elephant barely noticed and they would be dead if not kept by the park.
After the briefing it was time to get acquainted with the elephants, this involved feeding the beasties Bananas and getting up close and personal. Then all of a sudden it was time to get up onto the Elephant.
Mahmout's do not ride on the Elephants back they sit astride its neck behind the ears. This is quite an experience as the elephants do not have a lot to hang on to in that position. You ride bareback or more specifically "bare neck", only tourists get the saddles that you see in pictures.
Stage 1 of our training was to make the Elephant walk back and forth and practice the basic commands. A real Mahmout walked beside the Elephant and I gained the impression that the Elephant would have gone through the same routine if I had sat there and not given any commands at all.
That's a Banana that the Elephant is taking from my mouth
After we all had a turn it was time for a lunch of Chicken and Rice with a sauce of some sort and fruit. Simple but nice. By now I had warmed to the "lads" they were actually quite nice guys, young, impressionable and seeing the world for the first time. I was like that once, now I am more mature and grumpy. What still pissed me off though was they both had the looks that girls fall for and judging by their conversation they were both far more "successful" than I ever was.
During lunch the Mahmouts began to assemble the Elephants and we were each assigned to an Elephant. By chance I ended up on the leader of the group. For the rest of the afternoon I was always in front, and often waiting for the others to catch up. My Mahmout was also the official photographer and so I was often left unattended. Just me and the elephant and whatever it found to eat.
A born leader. The Elephant not me.
Once lunch was finished and we were all assembled on our Elephants we commenced a trek. This took about 90 minutes and in reality we probably covered less than 2km in that time. The Mahmouts walked beside the Elephants and we "controlled" the direction. The trek took us up a nearby hill and back down one side in a circular path back to the camp. A reasonably fit person could probably have walked it in 30 minutes.
However the trip was hilarious and actually very tiring. At one stage I seriously considered getting off and walking the rest of the way as I was very worn out. The hilarity came because the Elephants do not go for a ride such as a Horse might do. They see the walk as an opportunity to eat. My Elephant, as for the others also, was continually pulling down bamboo as it walked. Often it would stop and dive into a thicket and just stand there chomping away. My ability to control it was not high and the guides just let this happen. I surmised that this was normal but I did wonder how Hannibal got all his Elephants across the Pyrenees and Alps mountains into Italy.
At one stage my Elephant decided to crash through a thicket of bamboo to find some tasty morsels. At this point it became a bit worrying as I was in danger of being swept off the Elephant by the Bamboo, I was already ducked down to pass under branches that would have been impossible to push out of the way. I was very proud of myself when I managed to stop the beast, engage reverse thrust and back out of the thicket.
The ride continued on in this fashion and I later learnt that this was about par for the course, in fact this was a good day as we kept on time and course.
The trek took us back to the camp and on to a water hole. Here we were supposed to wash the Elephants down. Something that we were told they enjoyed. All I can say is "WATER FIGHT". It was on for young and old! Not sure how it started. Was it the Elephants squirting their riders with their trunk? or the Mahmouts throwing buckets of water around with gay abandon? Who knows. Who cares. It was a hot day, we were dirty and sweaty, it was fun and no hardship.
The tour ended shortly after, we had an Elephant parade and then it was time to change and get back to the Minibus for the trip home. Part of the tour was seeing paper made from Elephant dung. Mercifully the factory was closed and I was dropped back at my accommodation.
The Bludger was tired and walking bow legged like I won't say that. But the day was not over.

Saturday 3 November 2012

Exploring Chiang Mai - Saturday

November 3
No photos in this posting, I have "misplaced" the SD Card that they were saved on.
Today I basically just walked around the city and explored the environment. Directly in front of my hotel was a main road and the other side of that a moat with some remains of the ancient walls that guarded the city. The old town is (was) bounded by the moats and walls in a square pattern. The moats still exist and provide footpaths but are not as aesthetically pleasing as you may expect.
After exploring the nearby moat I made my way to Chiang Mai Plaza which has a good IT and electronics outlets. Here I was able to replace my USB charger which was accidentally packed in a box and left in Darwin. At last I could recharge the plethora of devices that are "essential" for modern travel.
I also passed the area where the night markets are held, closed at that time. And I spent some time exploring some pretty bridges which spanned the river. It was a hot day and I was almost continually thirsty and found it difficult to quench my thirst. So I was drinking a lot and shortly after in need of a toilet to release the bladder. Overall the walk was maybe not as enjoyable as it may have been.
I persevered and came to a temple (I will look up the name later, and edit this post). This is a pretty little temple and worth the visit. While there I was approached by a person who claimed to be a Muay Thai boxer and had been training in Melbourne. He had just popped in for a bit of prayer and was now about to head of to a shopping centre. He kindly offered to drop me off at the shops, no strings attached. This is a well known scam where he takes you to stores and you are pressured into buying things and he receives a commission. He was persistent but eventually left me. Some time later I found him trying the same line on a group of girls, I decided to get my own back and interrupted his spiel, saying that he was meant to have left some time ago and that he was late for his appointment. He didn't like that for some reason. The girls walked off and he went on to his next victim.
It was petty of me and I moved on from there.
I wandered into the old town but did not stay long as I planned to visit later. What I did note was that it was nicer than the red light district where I was staying, with a number of temples, cafe's, nice bars and accommodation. I decided to move there later in the week.
My impressions of Chiang Mai are that it is a very interesting city and that there are many things to do for tourists. Also that there are many good restaurants outside the more seedy bar areas the city.
During the course of the day The Bludger booked some trips and these will be the subject of successive posts.

Friday 2 November 2012

November 2 - Travel to Chiang Mai

I had breakfast in the market again. This time I chose a different vendor and ended up with chicken, a sauce and rice, very filling.
After that I checked out of my hotel and then made my way to the bus station to buy a ticket on the next bus to Chiang Mai. Another hot and humid day and it was quite a relief when the bus arrived to get inside and have some semblance of air conditioning. The bus trip was long and uneventful and got me into Chiang Mai late in the afternoon.
I had not booked any accommodation so allowed my taxi driver to recommend a place. She showed me a brochure of a reasonable looking place with a pool and I was happy with that. The taxi driver was a middle aged lady and by the end of the trip I had her life story she was "divorced, making ends meet on her own, needs a good man (hint hint), is available for any transport needs that I had, here is my number please give me a call." She had also established very quickly that I was on my own, not married, no dependents etcetera.
I got out at the hotel and thanked her.
I had been taken to the Lai Thai Guesthouse  which was certainly pleasant and well located and a reasonable price, so I booked in for three nights. I was later to find out that this guest house was infamous and in the news having recently had a murder in one of the rooms. The gist of the story is that a Pakistani man had taken a local Bar Manager back to his room. During the course of the night he brutally murdered her and then went on the run. He was later detained at the Bangkok airport trying to flee the country.
There was much rumour and speculation about why this occurred, I never found out the full details.
Anyway from my point of view the hotel was warm and comfortable and the pool was nice.
I went out that evening for a quiet meal and had a reasonable massage and a beer. The whole town was quiet, almost all of the bars were empty, and the bar girls desperate to call me in. I smiled and passed by.
Old fashioned phone in my room

The Bludger was ready to explore a new City.

Thursday 1 November 2012

Si Satchanalai Historical Park

This morning I braved the local produce market for breakfast. I had noticed the market the previous day, I wanted to try some real local food. I guessed (correctly) that the food vendors would not speak English, so I took the simple step of waiting till some one ordered and pointing at what they had.
I ended up with a lovely bowl of noodles, with what I think was a tomato/tamarind based sauce, various bits of meat and accompaniments. It was very nice also cheap and filling and spicy and I did not get a photo to display.
After that it was time to explore Si Satchanalai Historical Park.The park is about an hours drive from Sukhothai, so for this trip I engaged a driver with a car for the day. This turned out to be a good thing as the driver had some knowledge of the park and he was able to optimise my visit.
First stop was Wah Khao Phanom Phloeng. This is an ancient temple complex built on a hill called Phanom Phloeng with a nearby hill Suwankhiri also accessible via a short walk. Apparently there are 144 stairs to the top of the hill. I was hot and sweaty by the time I had climbed them.
Looking up those steps
 At the top is a large ruined temple which contains a huge Bhudda. The complex consists of other buildings too and I spent a solid hour walking around and discovering. It is a bit Indiana Jones territory with ruins partially hidden by vegetation and the whole area has a quiet and contemplative feel to it.

I descended from the hill temples and ended up at another complex which I also explored. I think that I may have taken the wrong path down the hill as I had to do some bush bashing and jump a wall to get into the temple area.
The outer wall

View of the temple complex

After this I reconnected with my driver and we drove a short distance to explore the Wat Chedi Chet Thoeo complex.

After that we took a ride to a more better preserved area of the park. Already I was beginning to get a bit "Wat"ed out. I should mention that there were informative displays at various locations, some of which showed reconstructions of how the temples may have looked. These were very useful as you could see the existing ruins and put it all into context.

Interpretative Panel

The ruins corresponding to the panel above.
Despite being in ruins many of these temples are still used for worship and I was intrigued to find some offerings in one place that included a whole roast chicken. It was fresh, the ants had barely had time to find it. I was very tempted to be naughty and try a piece, but I refrained.
Mmm that Chicken looked finger licking good

After a few more buildings and temples I decided that it was time for a change and asked the driver to show me the kilns. The kilns had been used to make pottery, and remember we are talking hundreds of years ago, so I was intrigued to see the technology. Unfortunately the main site was closed to visitors that day, but we spotted a signpost to a kiln along the roadside and I was able to look at that.
It was quite interesting, consisting of three distinct chambers. The first was a furnace where wood was burnt. The second was a chamber where the pottery was placed. I am not sure how that was loaded up. The third and final chamber was a huge chimney. It was fairly obvious that the hot gases from the furnace where drawn through the pottery chamber and out the chimney. To me it was ingenious.
The roof has collapsed, the furnace in the foreground, the other chambers just visible behind.

Detail of the brickwork that the kiln was made of.
By now it was well into the afternoon. I was tired hot and thirsty and had not stopped for lunch. My driver let me know that he had kept the best until last and we made our way to Wat Phra Si Rattana Maha That Chaliang. Technically outside the Si Satchanalai Historical Park but close enough to be considered part of it.

The driver was right as these temples had been restored in the 1700's and are in a much better condition than what I had seen to date.

Once I had visited this, I was all finished for the day. I could not see anymore temples. I asked the driver to return to my accommodation. He was happy to do so.
That evening I had my final meal in a slightly up market restaurant. Unfortunately it was fairly forgettable. Street food was more tasty.
The Bludger could not fit another Wat into his tiny brain.

Wednesday 31 October 2012

Sukhothai Historical Park

Rising early I duck walked into the main town and a had a nice breakfast of something. (see Picture).
Phad something. It tasted really nice.
I arrived in the city in time to see a procession of some kind heading to the local Wat (temple). People dressed in ghoulish attire and many looking like "Goths". The procession had drawn a big crowd so it must have some significance.

After that I headed back to my accommodation and hired a motorcycle because walking sucked big time.
I rode out to the Sukhothai Historical Park, about 4km all up. First stop was Wat Traphang Thong, a lovely restored temple surrounded by a moat and featuring a footprint of Buddha.
The moat - an idyllic scene
The Bludger. Did you notice the yellow cloth coming out of the hat?

Buddha's footprint. He had very big feet and symmetrical toes

The next stop was Wat Mahathat the principle Wat of old Sukhothai. There are a number of Chedi's (Stupa, a kind of hollow tower) here, of which the architectural style shows Khmer influence. The old Khmer empire had a huge geographical reach.

I also visited Wat Traphang Ngoen and Wat Sa Si, by this time I was getting more than slightly bemused and befuddled after a large amount of Chedis, Wats and other buildings not to mention Buddha.
I kept at it though until I was almost trampled to death by a herd of rampaging elephants, that like me had seen far too much of the temples and were now doing a runner. (Joke)
And I left them to the tender mercies of 4 wise men.
I saw more, but even describing it is too much.
I returned to my hotel and returned the motorbike, I relaxed for a while.
That evening I walked into town and had a meal in a restaurant overlooking the river. Nice food, not worth blogging about.
The Bludger had a great day.

Tuesday 30 October 2012

October 30 - Travel to Sukhothai

Ayutthaya had been a good start to Thailand, it helped put some of the Thai history into context. My next destination Sukhothai was going to add to that. Sukhothai was capital of a kingdom which predated Ayutthaya, in fact as Sukhothai waned, Ayutthaya grew in strength and importance. So in effect I was going backward in time.
I had organised to catch the bus to modern Sukhothai through my hotel. I paid a premium price, but they provided transport to the bus station which was on the main highway, several Km from town. A small van picked myself and several others up and we had gone about 200 metres when I began to have doubts. "Where was my passport?". I checked pockets and bags and decided that I must have left it in my room. I attracted the drivers attention and asked him to turn around. The other passengers must have thought that I was an idiot. Back at the hotel I suggested that the driver continue to the bus stop, I didn't want to make the other passengers miss the bus, but they all insisted on waiting, that was very kind of them.
The passport was in the room still, along with money belt and wallet. I had put them aside as I packed saying that they were important and needed to be carried on me. I had then taken a shower and threw the wet towel over the valuables thus hiding them. In over 25 years of independent travel that is the third time that I have left a passport or valuables behind. Fortunately each time I have realised quickly and recovered them.
Anyway we made it to the bus station with plenty of spare time.
The bus trip was uneventful but longer than I had expected, close to 6 hours. In Sukhothai I picked a place out of the Lonely Planet guide and took a motorbike there. It was nice, had a pool, which was empty as it was being repaired and I was quite happy to stay there.
I have mentioned my broken toe earlier. At this stage I was in a fair bit of pain and walking with difficulty. I did a duck walk as I found that pointing my right foot to the right was bearable when I stepped on it. I must have looked like a cripple.
So I walked into the main town to have something to eat and a look around. There was an annual "fair" on and I took some time to have a look around. A variety of stalls selling cheap clothing, plenty of stalls selling food and drink of various kinds, sideshows of the pop the ball in the clowns mouth variety and pop 3 balloons with 3 darts to win a prize and a stall with what looked like Thai Buddhist Priests selling tickets to compete for prizes. I thought that Buddhists were not allowed to accept money as offerings. You live and learn.
After that sojourn I had a meal followed by a massage. The meal was unsatisfactory as it was described as a noodle soup. There was not a single noodle in the soup and basically I ended up with a vegetable soup. I reasoned that I probably needed the healthy food. The massage was also a bit of a worry as I was constantly on edge in case my broken toe was mistreated.
That basically ended the night for me.
The Bludger went to sleep. He does that a lot.

Monday 29 October 2012

Location unknown: Somewhere in Thailand

I awoke in the morning and made it in good time to my new Thai friends place. There it was a very relaxed start, the train was due at 9:30am. We walked via the markets to the Ferry terminal. The ferry took us over the river and basically only 100 metres from the train station. By this time it was about 9:50 and me the silly westerner was fretting about having missed the train. When a train did arrive it was the 9:30 train - very delayed. Apparently this is normal.
Hard wooden seats. 3rd class train
What followed seemed like a couple of hours of bum crunching agony on a hard wooden seat. But we eventually made it to Lopburi. From there a mini van was hired and we were driven to a nearby lake. About 20 minutes drive all up. It was a pretty lake surrounded by low hills and had a large resort at one point. We checked out the resort, which was deserted. That is to say no customers, but there were staff around. However it was decided that we would move elsewhere.
The beach near the resort
Where we moved to was a series of restaurants along the roadside. On the lakeside of the road were pontoons and jetty's built out onto the lake. Narrow floating walkways allowed us to gain access to the pontoons which were set up as seating and eating areas. It was all very rustic and I was thrilled to be there. We spent the next several hours at one of the large tables eating, drinking and swimming. It was a lovely relaxing way to spend the afternoon.
Making our way out to the pontoons
The Thai women all swam fully clothed, whereas the two western men stripped off to bathers and showed their beer belly's and man boobs. Fortunately there were no mirrors.
I have no idea what I ate. I left the ordering to the locals and there was a steady procession of food brought out to us from one of the restaurants. All good, very tasty and very authentic Thai food. We drank Whiskey again, with soda. Lots of it.
Swimming and eating and drinking can all be done at the same time
I took a walk along the pontoons at one stage and met a couple of guys, I assumed from the ages father and son. They were very hospitable, offering me to sample their food, but I was too full from our other meal. I shared a drink with them instead and while we could not say much to each other I think that we all realised that the hand of friendship had been extended and accepted.
Effectively we went on a family picnic, of the type that I remember going on with my parents while I was a child. The difference was that the objective was to spend time in each others company. There were no distractions such as a radio with the cricket scores in the background. There were no games of rounders, or french cricket or frisbees or kicking the footy. Other than swimming there was just eating, drinking and socialising. I noticed when I was in Vietnam with my girlfriend's family the same thing. We went on a family outing, walked a little way and then stopped. I wanted to explore the area, but the family just sat and drank and ate and talked. On that occasion I could tell from the sideways glances that I was the butt of several jokes. That didn't distress me, as the foreigner I expected it. I am trying to draw a contrast with my Australian life style where an outing like that would be quite planned, require games and someone organising "things" and I would be off for a walk, part exercise, part exploring.
Nearby hills
I am trying to say that in some ways we are missing something beautiful out of life. Just talking and creating friendships with little distractions.
Eventually our drivers of the minivan started getting agitated and it was obviously time to head back to the train station to catch the train. Despite the large quantity of whiskey inside us all, no one fell off the walkways and we made it back to dry land in one piece.
The trip back was uneventful but contributed to the callouses on my bum.
It was a lovely day.
However our day was not finished. If you are eating and drinking too much throughout the day you may as well carry on into the night.
I should point out at this stage that my Thai friends were either on holiday, retired, not working or had flexibility to not work if they so chose. That meant that it was not a problem for them to be partying on a "school night".
We reconvened at one of their places and continued drinking, it was then decided that we would go out for dinner. We went to a restaurant with an unpronounceable name. Something like "mon ger ria" which I called Mongolia. This was a lovely place on the banks of one of the rivers in Ayutthaya. It seemed to be in the middle of nowhere but I later learned that it was actually not far away from the Historical Park. We continued drinking, continued eating and added dancing to the mix.
Mongereia - much better inside, don't judge a book by its cover
After a day with the family there was no further pretense. Pa, who is a lovely lady, was obviously quite attracted to me and I had to dance with her, pay her way and generally be the supporting man. I played along, she is nice and it was no hardship holding hands and being supportive. To be honest I quite liked her too, but for me it takes more than a couple of days to start falling in love, especially when you do not speak each others language.
The night ended. We all had too much to drink, and ate far too much. Pa fell asleep on the way home and disappeared as I was paying the Tuk Tuk driver. I had been a little confused about whether I needed to "perform" that night, but that question was quickly answered by her disappearance.
The Bludger went to bed weary, slightly drunk and with a big day ahead of him the next day. I was leaving Ayutthaya.