The Sockeyed Blog

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Phnom Penh

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I had two excellent days in Phnom Penh, a city I always enjoy returning to. I spent must of my time eating and drinking in the town’s fun great restaurants, cafes, and bars.

My plane touched down in the late afternoon, and I picked up my visa-on-arrival ($20) and was through customs and in a taxi quickly for the drive to my hotel. Vinh suggested the Amari on s.136, a great place just off the riverfront, centrally-located, new and not too noisy. It’s the sister hotel to the Paragon where I have stayed on other trips. My interior room – which I prefer as these rooms are quiet and dark – was $20/night.

View from my hotel to the 69 Bar

On the floor of the elevator in the hotel. A symptom of being on S.136

I picked up a SIM card from the front desk and gave Vinh a call. Before long he showed up and we walked down the riverfront to Cantina, the usual spot, for an Anchor (pronounced an-CHor) and a couple of really tasty chicken soft tacos. There was an opening of a photo exhibition on Cambodian performance at the National Museum, so we wandered over. We arrived in time to watch an excellent dance performance by a group called Children of Bassac. They perform every Thursday night, and high-quality cultural events like this is something that Phnom Penh really needs. Now, tourism seems very much based on atrocity tourism – the genocide and visits to S21 and the killing fields; for culture, people head to Siem Reap. Hopefully the city really begins to nourish regular cultural events like dance, music and visual arts.

Unfortunately we couldn’t actually see the photo exhibition (we did meet the photographer), so we went for more food, English this time, at a place nearby called Sunset or something. Vinh has a massive plate of bangers and mash, and I had a cheese and tomato toastie. Rick Valenzuela, a long-time friend who introduced me to Vinh, showed up and we were back to Cantina for another Anchor. Sue, Vinh’s wife (they were married a week before us), joined us. We didn’t stay up too late; I was sleepy from my travels.

I enjoyed an eggs and bacon breakfast at Cadillac where a group – me, Rick, Vinh and two other friends – assembled for an expedition to the RCAF (Royal Cambodian Armed Forces) market out towards the airport. Last year I bought some excellent new Thai-style army pants that I wear constantly; I bought two more pairs this year, but somewhat-different Cambodia-style one which are quick-dry synthetic and ripstop.

Vinh & Rick at the RCAF market

You wouldn’t expect to find a good burger place in a gas station, but Mike’s Burger House delivers the good. I had a regular cheeseburger for $2, and Vinh ate a double cheeseburger that was as big as his head. He also paired it with french fries that are deep fried, then batter-dipped and deep fried again. Sweet mercy.

Vinh enjoys his double cheeseburger

The 'band shot' in front of Mike's

I rested off the burger in the mid-afternoon, then Rick and I joined Sue and Vinh for a sunset cruise on the Mekong. Although we were invited for free, the regular price of a relaxing and scenic cruise on a very nice boat up and down the Phnom Penh waterfront is $5 including a drink. Amazing. It would be the perfect thing to do after work.

The waterfront

Oh Canada

The Paragon Hotel, where I've stayed in the past

Back on shore, Rick headed off to a small house party and went with Vinh and Sue to their apartment by the Independence Monument so Sue could change out of work clothes, then we rolled through town in a tuk tuk and across the bridge and south down the far bank of the river to Snow’s bar, a great, funky little wooden place with a stellar view back across the Mekong towards the city. A little burger stand out front provided my second burger of the day. I had what’s informally called the ‘oxymoron burger’ – a veggie burger with bacon on it. Oh, and it was good, possibly one of the best veggie burger patties I’ve had.

Vinh and his mistress at Snow's Bar

A pair of Anchors on the bar at Snow's

Next stop – back across the river to a party on the top of the Canadia Tower, the tallest building in the city. Not a particularly exciting event, but great views to be had. We circled the roof deck with Vinh taking pictures to stitch into a panorama. Vinh’s full bladder and a dire shortage of bathrooms had us making a hasty exit, however.

An entertaining American+Swede couple, Maria and ??, went with us to Sharkys, a venue that strikes me as a Viagra ad – a classic rock bar full of homely 50 & 60 year old white guys and freelancing Cambodian girls. Rick showed up.

A few drinks later and we decamped to Rock Bar (aka Zeppelin Cafe), a mandatory destination in Phnom Penh. Again, more drinks, plus sweet and sour pork and dumplings, and of course, hard rock dj’d by the owner, a fixture at the back of the bar, always loving what he is doing. I paced myself well throughout the evening and drank lots of water, so I was not in a bad condition; Rick, who I rode back to the the hotel with (his place is right around the corner), was pretty well lying on the floor of the tuk tuk. It was 2am when I made it to bed.

The Swede, Maria and Rick at Sharky's

Saturday morning found me groggy but functional. I met Vinh at Metro on the Riverfront for another excellent meal. My open-faced egg sandwich was mountain of foccacia, bacon, two poached eggs, hollandaise, salad greens, balsamic and shaved parmesan. The coffee was good too. Rick arrived only moderately the worse for wear. Vinh had to take off, so we said good bye, and I hung out with Rick for the duration. We went by his excellent corner loft apartment on the Riverfront at s.130 (I think) where he gave me a great Phnom Penh Post (his paper) cap and I visited his cat (kind of skittish and clearly doesn’t remember me). We went in vain to try and find a t-shirt he’d had printed at a printer shop (he’d lost the receipt some months ago). Back in our neighbourhood we said goodbye, I packed up my room and took a taxi to the aiport and caught my Air Asia flight back to Bangkok.

A fine breakfast at Metro

I stayed in the familiar Silver Gold Garden Hotel, only about 10 minutes from the airport, which is clean, comfortable and only $20 a night including transfers to and from the airport. What made the experience enjoyable was a street market next to the hotel. I set down my bags and went out to find dinner. I found a stall selling delicious laksa-like rice noodles with fish balls in coconut curry soup, with big bowls of fresh herbs, pickled greens and sprouts to throw on top. This cost about $0.60. I also found a place selling the best mango sticky rice I’ve had, so I picked up two orders, one for dessert, and one for breakfast this morning.

Mango sticky rice and other goodies from the market


I slept well, one of the better nights I’ve had. A van took me to the airport at 6:30am, and my flight left at 8:25. I’m 30 minutes out of Hong Kong, where I’ll have a 12 hour layover to visit folks there

Written by sockeyed

November 7, 2010 at 08:51

Posted in Food, Travel

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Leaving Vietnam

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My second day in the field with PSI Vietnam was just within Hải Phòng documenting their promotional efforts and outreach. We started in the morning with a trip around the city with a local staff member photographing billboards promoting safe practices and HIV testing, ideally with groups of men sitting or standing nearby. The billboards were generally placed in strategic areas – places where men drink (bia hơis) or industrial areas where they work.

A PSI billboard promoting HIV awareness

For lunch we had bún chả at my request. Our local contact took us to a place that was quite renowned for it, and rightly so; the spring rolls were delicious – stuffed with crab and shrimp. I ate very well, but it seems the others were able to eat a fair bit more.

Crab and shrimp springrolls with bun cha

After relaxing in the hotel lobby for a couple of hours (I uploaded photos to my last blog post), we returned to the PSI office where they male client team was meeting before heading out for the evening’s work. They practised a couple of interactions with a mock group of men out drinking, and apparently it was very humorous and realistic. After about an hour we took a group photo, then they all rolled to various quarters of the city to do their work.

We met up with a couple of teams (they work in pairs) on a busy street lined with bia hơis. Their outreach was very similar to what I’d seen in Phnom Penh – a worker would approach a group of single men in the target age group and engage them in discussion about condom use and HIV prevention. From what I understood, much of the talk was about how you can’t tell if someone has HIV and that it’s best to be safe and practice prevention. One example they used, presented with flash cards, was that you can verify what your friend says about the weather by looking at a weather forecast and what he says about a restaurant by trying it, but you can’t take his work on whether a sex worker is safe, so it’s always best to use a condom. At the end of the chat, a few gifts – pens, condoms and condom holders – were passed around and the worker found a new table.

A PSI outreach worker with potential male clients of sex workers at a bia hoi

This kind of work can’t really happen late in the evening as the men will have had more to drink by then and would likely be heading to ‘entertainment establishments’ if they were planning to do so, so we were on the road back to Hanoi by 7pm. It was a steady, slowish drive again and it wasn’t until about 9pm that we got to where I would be staying in the northern part of the city. We had some phở, then I was dropped at the Newtatco Hotel, an unusual place which I think was a state-run guesthouse. It reminded me of something out of China in the early 1980s, and the bed was as comfortable as sleeping on a sheet of plywood. Like most nights on this trip, I didn’t sleep well.

At 6:30am a taxi arrived to take me to the airport which was surprisingly busy. There were long lines to check in and for emigration. The flight on Air Asia was smooth and comfortable and time, and Bangkok’s airport was surprisingly quiet and I was out the door and on the airport train quickly.

I checked in to Jim’s Lodge not long after lunch and tried unsuccessfully to nap, so I got up and headed out on the town. For a snack I picked up a couple of buns at one of the ubiquitous 7-11s, then took the BTS to National Stadium. My plan here had to meet up with my PSI connections from last year. From National Stadium I was planning on taking a taxi to meet Piboy, the outreach worker I followed for a few days last year, but it turns out he was an hour away, so unfortunately I could not meet up. My other contact here, Alex, had to head out to check on projects in Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai, so I couldn’t meet him either.

I ambled around MBK mall for a bit, watching people buy cell phones and gizmos, but looking at the price of camera gear, it was clear things are actually cheaper in Canada. I did buy a screen protector for my point and shoot which came to $3, installed.

Jeremy Tan recommended a chain of classy and high-quality spas as a place to get a thai massage. Normally averse to massages, he claims going to Health Land converted him, so I had to check one out. It look me a long time to find the location I was looking for as Bangkok street names and addressing are confusing at best. I walked up and down many streets including the infamous Soi Cowboy (the go-go bars being prepped for the evening’s action, and the bar girls having their dinners). Eventually I simply got a moto driver to take me to Health Land (I had been very close several times). When we arrived he expressed concern that I was in the wrong place. Through hand gestures he let me know that I couldn’t possibly want to go here as the place doesn’t offer boom boom as part of the massage. I let him know that it was OK.

It was a very pleasant place with beautiful wood finishing and fragrant herbs in the air. The customers were mostly women and couples. For 450 Baht ($15) I got a 2 hour thai massage in a nice, soothing room by a stout and powerful masseuse. Thai massage, when done properly, often makes you think, by god this hurts but it sure feels good for me. A great deal of time is spent on the legs, and when you have hamstrings as tight as mine, there were times when the pressure almost made me sing. Two hours of finger and elbow pressure, plus twisting and pulling reduced me to a sack of jello. I had come in with a headache and it was long gone, and my legs felt pleasantly achy.

Looking down on Suhkumvit from the Asok BTS station

For dinner I walked a few minutes over to Cabbages and Condoms, a social enterprise started by the fellow who really brought condom use to the fore in Thailand in the 1990s. The restaurant is in a lovely treed courtyard, and a musician from a music school plays traditional Thai music. The food is very good too. I had tom yum talak (spicy seafood soup) and penang kai (chicken in a thick coconut curry sauce), with sticky rice and fresh coconut water. For desert – mango sticky rice, of course, and a glass of Thai whiskey. The bill came to about $17, which is pricey for here, but certain worth it for the food and the ambiance.

Then, back to the hotel for an early-ish night (although I still didn’t sleep too well). I’ll pack up now and head to the airport for my flight to Phnom Penh.

Written by sockeyed

November 4, 2010 at 20:05

Vientiane After Two Years

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I arrived in Vientiane at around 11am this morning on the standard Lao Airlines ATR-72. The flight from Bangkok took not much more than an hour, and I kind of enjoy flying in propeller planes – the buzz of the turbo-props, and the sense that they won’t completely plummet straight to the ground in the event of total engine failure. The flight was uneventful unless you consider getting a tuna bun an event, and I finished the very enjoyable To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis.

Lao Airlines ATR-72


There isn’t a lot on the agenda for today other than getting settled (although I will be having dinner with Rob Gray, a friend of almost 30 years and the Country Director for Population Services International Laos, who I will be shooting for over then next few days). This is my third year working with PSI; last year I documented their malaria program in the far southeast part of Laos and their injecting drug user program in Bangkok, and the year before that I worked with them here in Vientiane as well as in Cambodia and Bangkok.

They have booked me into a very comfortable new hotel – the Sabaidee Lao Hotel – in the centre of town, complete with a large bed, air con and a modern bathroom. After dropping my stuff off I picked up a SIM card for my mobile, then went for a long walk around town, revisiting a lot of familiar places from my time here two years ago (and a quick visit the year before). My sense is that it has changed a bit for the worse, but that could be my imagination or slight romanticizing of what it was like before. To me it seems there is more traffic, there are more tourists (including farang with local girls), and more tourist/backpacker-oriented stores. I suppose that these things happen, especially with Southeast Asia being such a popular destination and many places probably feeling overrun. I’ll have to ask Rob for his impression.

My wandering took me down to the riverfront which has definitely changed. An entirely new waterfront area (including flood prevention) is under construction and all of the shanty-like riverfront bars are gone, which is unfortunate. The strip is also recovering from the weekend riverboat festival which left a lot of garbage and semi-deconstructed stalls in its wake.

The New Mekong Riverfront in Vientiane


The New Mekong Riverfront in Vientiane


I changed some money (7,000 Kip to the dollar) and had a great cheese and veggie baguette sandwich with cafe lao and a mango pineapple smoothie at the Manivanh Shop on Samsenthai Road (19,000 Kip). Near the end of my walk I enjoyed my first Beer Lao, but I noticed with disdain that there are now other beers available. The Beer Lao monopoly was a fine thing given that it is an excellent beer.

Baguette Sandwich and Cafe Lao at Manivanh Shop

The Original Beer Lao

Getting here was largely uneventful. I arrived in Hong Kong on the night of the 23rd and was met at the airport by Kin-yi, Rehman and Jeremy Lai. We rode the bus to Kin-yi’s place in Tsuen Wan (her apartment always signals to me that a trip is beginning or ending) where we enjoyed very tasty curries that Rehman cooked up. We all slumbered at Kin-yi’s place, with Rehman issuing great snores from the living room floor.

After a fair sleep I woke early and Rehman walked me back to the bus in time to catch the 6:20 departure. Flying to Bangkok was fine, but the best part was riding the new train in from the airport. While not thrilling in and of itself, it was great not to sit in gridlock for an hour trying to get to the hotel.

I booked a room at Jim’s Lodge on Ruam Rudee off of Sukhumvit. It’s in a very convenient location not far from the BTS (skytrain), and the rooms are spacious, clean and bright; something the rooms in my previous go-to place, The Atlanta, were not. The price, at 1,200 Baht ($36) a night including breakfast works for me.

I didn’t get up to a lot in Bangkok in the half-day that I had. I did enjoy possibly the best Thai massage I’ve had just down the road from the hotel at Khun Tiew’s, a place recommended by my friend Nathan (there was a photo of him on the wall along with many other happy customers). I had a 2 hour massage full of eucalyptus, hot stones, intense pressure and some vigorous twisting.

Khun Tiew in front of her place

Bangkok's Most Wanted

Afterwards I was peckish so I went to a nearby cafe she recommended and had some very rich tom yum gai which was flavourful but not quite as spicy as I wanted. I was hoping to get out and find some of the primo local places Jeremy Tan suggested I visit, but I was a bit zonked and unadventurous. I hope to make it out during my next visit.

I was in bed by 8pm. Not impressive for a night in Bangkok, I know, but I wanted sleep. Sadly I didn’t get much. I tossed and turned until 5am when I got up, packed and checked out. I was at the airport well before my flight, but that was a good thing as it was pretty mobbed.

Written by sockeyed

October 25, 2010 at 03:01

Hong Kong and Home

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My stay in Bangkok was pleasant and not particularly memorable.  I stayed in the clean and comfortable Gold Silver Garden Guest House a short distance from the airport for a very reasonable $27/night.  They picked me up at the airport and delivered me again early the next morning.

It was unusual to be flying into Hong Kong in the middle of the day rather than the evening.  There was so much to see: rugged green peaks, massive highrise developments in the New Territories, and busy waterways.  I made my way quickly through the always-efficient airport and rode the A31 bus into Tsuen Wan (again interesting in the daytime).  I popped into Kin-yi’s apartment to drop off my stuff and shower, then headed into Sham Shui Po – the computer mecca – in Kowloon to look at getting my laptop repaired.  I found an entire mall of tiny repair shops one block over from the Golden Computer Centre and spotted a guy with a couple of Acer laptops, so I figured he could help out.  He quickly confirmed that my hard drive was kaput, so I walked over to the Centre and bought a new 320GB hard drive for $500 HK (about $80) and brought it back to him.  I left it with him for the night.

Dad arrived on the A31 with Ah Man and Jeremy Lai around 8:30.  I met him at the bus loop and we walked back to Kin-yi’s for him to drop his things off and clean up, then we went for a late dinner in the Discovery Park mall.  Returning home I did a bit of email on his computer, then hit the sack and slept very soundly until 6:30am.

At around 9:30 we went into the centre of Tsuen Wan and hopped a minibus up the mountain to Chun Lung, Kau Fu, Kau Mo and Ah Kei’s family village nestled in a forest preserve.  We ate a delicious dim sum lunch in their family restaurant, joined by them, Ah Man and Jeremy.

We spent much of the afternoon in Kowloon, first picking up my computer (a mere $200 [$30] for service), then visiting Rehman in his tailor shop in East Tsim Sha Tsui.  By the late afternoon we’d returned to Kin-yi’s where dad had a short nap, then we took the bus and train over to Tai Po for the traditional home-cooked feast with the entire Kwok clan.  Dishes included steamed shrimp, fresh chicken, watercress, mushrooms and duck feet, and wonderful stuffed fish.  Ah Kong kindly drove me all the way to the airport in his new Toyota Picnic, a kind of practical mini-minivan.  We dropped dad off at the apartment when we stopped to get my luggage.  And now here I am, waiting to board my flight back home.  It’s hard to imagine that I will soon by in our own bed after all the different beds in all the different places I’ve been too in the last four weeks.

Written by sockeyed

November 7, 2009 at 09:11

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The final stage of our India journey was a fun and full way to finish up.  Ahmedabad brought back to me the intensity of Indian cities.  As wild and bustling as towns such as Veraval and Junagadh are, Ahmedabad is that much more so.  The streets are larger and fuller, crowds are bigger and the air is even dirtier (although less pungent than Veraval).

Ahmedabad is a very enjoyable place to spend a few days.  It has a long history as a city, dating back to its founding by Ahmed Shah in 1411.  The old city is full of twisting narrow streets jammed with amazing historical buildings and suitable characters.  Many Muslims live in the old city as well, and there are some spectacular mosques.

After arriving at the Hotel Serena, we were soon visited by Jabir, one of Derek’s old friends, who speaks very good English and a raft of other languages.  We talked for a while in our room, and then walked over to the wedding feast for one of his relatives.  It was a sizeable affair; they expected to feed 1,800 people.  It was my first Muslim wedding (technically the wedding was the day before), and there are obvious contrasts (besides the multi-day character).  Women and men were in separate areas of the hall, most notably, and ate separately.  The food was delicious.  We sat on the ground on a cloth and a huge platter was brought to us containing big pieces of ‘Chinese’ style sweet-spicy chicken, samosa-like pastry triangles, cumin meatballs, pineapple sweet, and slightly sweet chickpea flour balls in light syrup and yogurt.  The second course was an absolutely delicious rice biryani dish with rich gravy to pour on top.  While eating and after there was socializing with all of Derek’s old friends: Jabir, Maboob, Gaffar, Hafiz and more, all of whom are or were salwar kameez (a standard form of women’s clothing – loose pants and a matching thigh-length top) sellers in the old city.  We were very warmly received, as were Derek’s photos of Asha.

We could have slept in the next morning, which would have been appreciated, but instead we woke early to take a walking tour of the old city.  Meeting at the Swaminarayan Mandir temple at 8am, our guides took us on a meandering walk through many ‘pols’, or micro neighbourhoods and courtyards and narrow streets, and often connected through tiny pass-throughs.  We took in some lovely old architecture, and learned that the city is very proactive in protecting its heritage stock by providing free services of architects and engineers to help in the restoration of listed buildings.  Those that have been improved have a plaque on the front.  The challenge is that older buildings are often owned by many members of the same family, and they can seldom agree on what to do with their properties.  The tour finished at the massive 15th century Jumma Mashid, “Friday Mosque”, built by Ahmed Shah.  I have memories of going there to watch evening prayers at dusk back in 1998.

We were not far from the hotel, so we walked back for a rest.  Derek napped a bit and I puttered, then we had a great South Indian lunch at the Lucky Restaurant just down the street.  When I asked Derek about the rectangular green objects on the floor surrounded by low fences, he said that they were old Muslim graves.  Interesting décor!  They were well maintained and respected, with flowers laid on some of them.

In the later afternoon, we went to visit the salwar sellers.  The streets their shops are on were absolutely mobbed; we were barely able to walk through the thick humanity.  The shops themselves – Maboob’s in particular – were jammed full of women buying salwars.  We visited both Maboob and Gaffar’s shops, and sat chatting and drinking cold drinks or milky coffee.  Around 6pm we squeezed our way out again and went to visit two more folks, this time across the river in newer neighbourhoods: one house was the family of a friend of Derek’s in Winnipeg, and the next was Derek’s research assistant’s – Nerendra’s – place.  I actually met him in Sri Lanka in 2005.  As a perpetual workaholic, he wasn’t there when we arrived, but we sat and talked with his wife and lovely squeaky three year-old daughter, Jeena.  Nerendra eventually showed up at 9 or so, and we have a most tasty Gujarati meal.  Nerendra now does AIDS-prevention work, so we had an interesting discussion about what he is up to and some of the projects I’ve been involved with in Southeast Asia.

It was a fairly late night and a very early morning.  We woke at 5 and arrived at the airport in good time for our 7:20 flight on Jet Airways.  I munched a veggie sandwich and some sweets.  An hour after takeoff and we were landing in Mumbai.  Derek was staying on board as the plane was continuing on to Chennai, his next destination for a conference, so we said good-bye and I deplaned.  Getting to the international departures required a 20-minute bus ride that deposited us outside of security at the terminal, so I had to pass through it again, plus emigration and multiple screenings and boarding-pass checkings.  There was surprisingly little time to kill when I finally arrived at the gate for my 11:30 flight.

Bangkok seems orderly and modern after India, which is surprising.  We zipped in from the airport on the expressway, but the taxi got stuck in traffic tar as soon as we exited.  Yet all the cars stayed in their lanes (there were lanes!), and there was absolutely no honking or chaos.  Just resignation.  We sat and inched and sat and inched.  We got within a few hundred meters of the Atlanta Hotel only to have to drive the wrong way and then sit again due to one-way streets.  I really could have got out and walked, and maybe should have, but instead stayed in the taxi.

My sleep was deliciously peaceful and long – from 11pm until 8:30am.  I ate my usual muesli with fresh fruit and yogurt, and coffee in the hotel restaurant, then spent some time on the computer uploading blog postings from India and responding to a few emails.  Kristi also called and we had a nice chat.

Jeremy Tan happens to be in Bangkok for a month, working with the Thai branch of his company, so we had lunch by his office over in Silom and caught up.  Great to see him.

I organized, packed and showered, then headed to the PSI offices, also in Silom, where I had some internet time to check on details for the Laos part of my trip.  I met with a few staff to look over some of the pictures I took on my earlier visit to Bangkok.  Alex Duke and I had a simple pork-on-rice dinner in a local eatery, then I headed to the Hua Lamphong train station.  I’m writing this from the top berth in a 2nd class sleeper car in a train bouncing its way east to Ubon Ratchatani.  From there I’ll head over the border into Laos and meet up with the PSI Malaria outreach teams.

Hualamphong Station (photo from 2008)

Written by sockeyed

October 27, 2009 at 18:29

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I have arrived in India just in time for Diwali. Even at 10:30 in the morning, the boom from enormous firecrackers is resonating off the buildings in the area. I am in the apartment of Ramachandran and Meena in the district of Powai, on the edge of Mumbai not too far from the airport. Derek met Ramachandran on a train about five years ago when Derek joined a conversation in Gujarati. They have been friends ever since. Ramachandran and Meena are a lively and outgoing couple, with two grown sons and a grandson in the US. They have been lovely and relaxed hosts.

I touched down just before lunchtime yesterday and moved fairly quickly through immigration and customs despite many steps that keep an army of hundreds employed: swine flu screening, passport and visa check, 2nd passport check, baggage pickup, baggage x-ray, then finally customs slip collection. Nonetheless, I was through much more quickly than I was 10 year ago.

I changed some money (42 RS to the dollar), prepaid a taxi and rode in a fantastic ancient black and yellow tin can for the 45 minutes to Powai. It reintroduced me to Indian chaos: traffic tore around irrationally, horns sounded constantly, children thrust their arms into the car for coins and candy, the driver cursed a blue streak at everything (even I understood what he was suggesting be done to certain mothers), potholes and ruts were bounced through, and I noticed how everything in the world seemed coated in brown dust.

After some searching, the driver found Ramachandran and Meena’s place, and my hosts greeted me warmly. They live in a very pleasant area with a fair amount of greenery and a view towards a lake. When they moved here in 1989, theirs was the only complex in the area; now they are surrounded by a forest of startlingly-neoclassical highrises with what looks like Roman temples on the top of each. It has become quite a high-end area with many shops and a mass of call centres servicing N. American and European companies. In all, it’s a gentle re-introduction to India.

Ramachandran took me on a couple of walks to show me the area, one after I arrived, and one around dusk. The traffic was largely dysfunctional – trucks pulled out and blocked entire lanes, and people abandoned cars and wives in moving lanes to buy diwali sweets or groceries.

Diwali, the festival of light, is just getting started, with today as the first full day. Buildings are lit up, flowers and lanterns are hung, days off of work are given, and many a firework and firecracker are lit off. It is quite astounding what it legal in terms of calibre of explosive. At night it sounds a bit like an artillery barrage.

Strings of marigolds - Diwali decorations

Designs made with coloured sand are created on the threshold of houses

Nonetheless, I was sound asleep when Derek arrived at about 11:30 last night. Poor guy had flown all the way from Winnipeg via Toronto and Zurich. I continued to sleep well, and found he was already up when I got out of bed at 7:00. Three hours sleep is no good and he is back in bed for a snooze. Ramachandran has just taken us for a walk, and we stopped for some amazing chai across the street from his apartment. When Derek wakes, we’ll head to another neighbourhood and visit his old friends Vinod and Kulpina, whom I met in both 1995 and 1998. It will be very fun to see them again. After that visit, we’ll return to the airport and fly to Rajkot in Gujarat, a short 1 hour flight away.

My full day in Bangkok, the day before yesterday, was really quite successful. I spent the entire time with Piboy, but was also joined by Pinong, the director of the Ozone centre, and Nok, a very nice and capable translator that PSI sent along. The intent was to follow Piboy through most of a standard day for him. It began with a little bit of report writing on his outreach, then we rode a bus to the methadone clinic to get his daily dose. I could feel tension in him before he got the dose, and afterwards could sense he was relaxed and somewhat euphoric. We then went on some outreach together: to IDUs, siblings of IDUs, and female street sex workers. He had a strong rapport with many of the people encountered, and showed warmth, respect and compassion. He chatted and passed out needle kits and condoms, and we covered a lot of ground in the Ban Sue area and also over towards Khao San road.

The highlight was a trip to his fiancée’s house, about half an hour outside of the city core. She, Jeet, is a lovely woman with a glowing smile who met Piboy after hearing him on the radio talking about injection drug use and HIV prevention. She was interested in the subject, so she called in to talk to him and was touched by his warmth. She was a bit surprised by his age when they met – she is 25 and he is 52, but she still fell for him. It was five years ago that they met, and they’ll be married on the 31st.

Jeet lives in quite a traditional set of houses lived in by her father’s side of the family. She shares a small stilt house with her mother (who is not much older than me), and Piboy will move in with them when they’re married. I’m sure that it will be a transition for him as he now lives in a sketchy part of town full of illegal gambling houses.

We sat for some time on the floor of their house drinking Pepsi as I interviewed Jeet and her mother about their relationship with Piboy and took some photographs. Piboy is much respected for the work that he does and the compassion he shows, and his age is actually considered an asset as he is considered mature and settled. I photographed them among the houses and with relatives, then we rolled in a taxi back into town. Piboy stayed out in his future home.

Pinong, Nok and I had a tasty noodle lunch in a simple restaurant, then we walked back to Ozone. I documented a blood test, then left with Nok and we rode the subway then BTS (skytrain) back downtown. Nok and I said goodbye and I went to MBK mall to get a new cell phone. My old one died an ugly death, seemingly suffering dementia and loss of motor control in its old age. For $25, I got a simple new Nokia phone that should serve me well. Its most fancy feature is a flashlight. Of course, I had to visit the food court again. I had papaya salad, mango juice and some noodles that had a few too many entrails and vital organs for my taste.

Back at the hotel, I drank a Cheers beer in my room and packed up for an early-morning departure to India.

Written by sockeyed

October 16, 2009 at 23:47

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Sticky Bangkok

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I am writing from the Atlanta Hotel, where there are more rules (about scallywags and catamites) than there are rooms.  Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration because it’s a fairly big hotel, but there are a lot of rules posted on many walls.  It’s possible the owners are German.

The flight from Hong Kong was short and comfortable.  I was somewhat surprised to be riding in a 747.  The taxi ride into town involved hurtling down freeways, then Bangkok city traffic slowed us like a mouse stepping into a glue trap.  The roads were totally bottled up, as usual, and the last few hundred meters took about half the overall travel time.  By the end we were driving through hotel parking lots (with the attendants as will accomplices, it seems), and we magically popped out on Sukhumvit Soi 2, not far from the hotel.

I’ve come to Bangkok to document Population Services International (PSI’s) injection drug user (IDU) outreach program.  This has been moderately successful although I’ve been a bit less successful than I expected.  This is partly because of language issues, important people being out of town, and those who are here being caught up in meetings.  Nonetheless, I have managed to spend some time at the O-zone drop-in centre and on the streets with outreach workers, and I’ve had remote help from Alex Duke in the PSI office.  I met up with him here last year when he and his girlfriend took me out on the river for the Loy Krathong festival, and we’ll have dinner together tonight.

The outreach work has been interesting.  I’ve been out with a number of peer workers who scooter from place to place where they know they can expect to meet IDUs.  When they do, they chat with them, go over educational materials, and hand out clean needle kits and condoms.  It has taken me into parts of Bangkok that I would never have seen, and the scooter rides have been hair-raising to put it mildly.  I often have to tuck my knees in tightly as we squish between moving cars, and the oncoming lane is quite often used for passing if no (or few) cars are coming the other way.  (Mom, you didn’t read this part, but you will be happy to know that I was wearing a helmet).

My angle is to humanize the peer outreach workers, to show that they have lives just like the rest of us.  My hope it to focus on one particular man, Piboy, who is 53 and has been a user for 30 years.  He uses rarely now, but still relies on daily methadone.  You’d never know, however.  He’s going to get married on the 31st, and I’ve already been invited to the wedding.  His wife-to-be isn’t a user herself but is aware of his addiction issues.  I hope to really focus on his daily life tomorrow – not just the outreach work, but also his home life.  With luck I’ll have a translator along and a bit more coordination from the office.

Aside from they photography, I’ve been putzing around Bangkok.  I’ve had some tasty food including a great lunch at the life-changing food court in the MBK mall: green curry with eggplants, green papaya salad, glutinous rice with black beans and coconut milk, and iced coffee.  I’ve also managed to get a thai massage (at the same place in the Muslim quarter that I visited last year).  There were some points in the massage (hamstrings) where I would have freely admitted any state secrets had I known any.  Nonetheless, the kneading seemed largely therapeutic and relaxing.

The weather has been something to be reckoned with, and even the locals seem to be complaining.  It has been very wet, with multiple daily thunderstorms.  It’s about 30+ degrees out, so it’s a might-bit sticky.  Air con can be appreciated at times like this.

I do enjoy Bangkok, but I’m looking forward to moving on to India.  There is a mystery as to what I’ll do when I return here on the 27th.  I was supposed to travel into southern Laos to work on PSI’s malaria programs, but recent storms have made that area quite inaccessible.  I’m waiting to hear from PSI Laos about whether or not they’ll go ahead.  I have the offer of doing more projects here in Thailand – in Chiang Rai and/or in Pattaya – but I’m keen to get out of Thailand, possibly to Cambodia or Vietnam if things don’t work on in Laos.  We shall see.

Written by sockeyed

October 14, 2009 at 03:27

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Special Express to Chiang Mai

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It’s 8:15pm and I’m on the Special Express train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. I’m in 2nd class A/C sleeper, and my companions are three young Buddhist monks. Originally I was seated one section forward, but by some mishap a single young woman ended up among the monks and that was deemed unacceptable by the conductor in his banana republic military colonel uniform, so I was asked to swap places and am now among the holy folk who seem happy to sit cross legged on their chairs, and travel with matching brown gym bags (with the name of their temple screened on the side?) and saffron and green soft shoulder bags. The train trip takes about 14 hours, so I should roll into Chiang Mai around 9:30am. This is the same train that I rode to Chiang Mai last year.

A western couple seated close by just ordered a frosty bottle of beer and it looks very tempting, but suppose that it’s not kosher to drink booze in my current company.

Alex didn’t end up joining us last night as he was tied up in endless meetings. Thor and I had an excellent meal at a nearby restaurant called Cabbages and Condoms, an usual name that reflects the fact that it’s a social enterprise run by PDA, the biggest NGO in Thailand, who promotes reproductive health and HIV prevention. It was quite an elegant place, in a large, tastefully-lit outdoor courtyard. A woman in a traditional outfit played soothing zither melodies. The food was really top-notch. I started with a fresh lychee juice, and we shared rich musamun curry and deep-fried prawns covered in dried or fried garlic. Even the steamed rice was flavourful. For dessert, I had my first mango sticky rice – mango slices, glutinous rice and coconut milk drizzled on top – of the trip.

My shoulders were aching after schlepping around my camera gear all day, so I went in search of a thai massage place. Thor had to leave very early the next morning for Singapore, so we said our goodbyes and promised to track each other’s blogs. Finding a massage place that wasn’t simply a rub-n-tug in the Nana Soi 4 area is not easy, so I headed across Sukhumvit road in search of more savoury establishments. I discovered an Arabic quarter and felt myself transported to a completely different city populated by portly Arab men, women in full chador, and curious Thais looking at rotating shwarma. I found a massage place full of men, women and children getting foot rubs, shaves and facials, so I figured that it would probably be OK. I requested an hour on my back, shoulders and head. I changed into a set of Thai massage pajamas, and the masseuse went to work. A few of the full-force elbow digs into my sorest spots caused a few watery eyes and cries for mercy, but overall I think that it did the trick.

I made it home through the mayhem of Nana and slept quite soundly (although I am still wrestling with a cold).

Today was pretty inert. I took care of getting a plane ticket to Luang Prabang at the hotel travel agent, picked up some supplies, did email, and such. I met Thomas Achilles, the regional director of CUSO (now merged with VSO), for lunch at a local restaurant as VSO’s offices are just on the next soi from the Atlanta. He helped coordinate most of my photography projects during last year’s trip, so it was good to catch up and talk about where we were each at. I was also important to talk about Nic Parenteau, the CUSO cooperant that I photographed last year and was killed in a tragic motorcycle accident during the winter. It was meaningful to hear that Thomas had used a number of my photographs in a book about Nic that was given to his family.

Thomas also procured my train ticket for me, and here I am rolling northward. I think that we are finally getting close to the outskirts of Bangkok. Not long ago we rolled past the old Don Muang airport.

Written by sockeyed

November 15, 2008 at 04:30

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Bali-Bye and on to Bangkok

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The most exciting thing that has happened since I last wrote is that I have become an uncle. Just less than 24 hours ago, my sister-in-law Emily gave birth to Asha Marguerite Johnson Denton, a lovely little girl born at home. Derek called me first thing this morning with the news and I could feel his glowing fatherdom from halfway around the world. I can’t wait to meet Asha.

I am now in Bangkok, staying in the unique and somewhat charming Atlanta Hotel with its classic art deco lobby, plain rooms, reasonable rates and an astounding number of firm rules posted on almost every blank surface, mostly telling the reader that bad behaviour of any sort will not be tolerated and any transgressor will be immediately surrendered to the Authorities and locked in gaol for the duration. Nonetheless, it is a fun place to stay and it has a great restaurant overseen by an impressive octogenarian cashier/matriarch who has been at her post since the dawn of time. I happened to meet one of my co-workers from the City – Thor Kuhlmann – at the reception desk last night. We knew that we’d both be in SE Asia, but had no idea we would actually overlap at the same place at the same time. I spent the morning with Thor today, but I’ll come back to that in a bit.

Our last few days in Indonesia were very quiet, and tainted a bit by mild sickness. My ear got worse and Kristi developed flu-like symptoms. At first she was convinced that it was dengue fever or malaria or both, but relaxed a bit when the fever proved not high enough. It wasn’t fun, regardless, so we decided to make an earlier-than-planned exit from the island. We were lucky to get two spots on the Blue Water Express boat to Benoa Harbour on Bali on the morning of the 10th, plus a reservation at the Swastika Bungalows that evening. The boat ride was uneventful, quite scenic and a bit bumpy. It was also about twice as long as the earlier trip from Padang Bai. Returning to Bali and then to the bungalows felt calm, quiet and familiar. It was nice to be back in the lushness and flowers, and to see the daily offerings appearing everywhere again. We spent the rest of the day relaxing and had a nice lunch of local nosh (nasi campur) at Wayan’s Warung, right by our bungalows. Kristi mostly napped and read in bed, and I went for another tasty massage across the road.

For our last day in Bali, we relaxed again in the morning then hired our driver from earlier, Ketut, to take us around to the various craft villages between Sanur and Ubud. We visited places selling stone and wood carvings, textiles and silver. We didn’t buy a ton of stuff, just some batik napkins, several small wood carvings, and Kristi bought a few nice pieces of silver jewellery. Unfortunately Ketut backed his van into a tree and shattered the rear window at our first stop, and had to drive back to Sanur to get another vehicle. Poor fellow.

We watched the sunset at Tanah Lot, which was easily the most touristy place we saw during our time on Bali. It is a temple in a lovely setting on a stone outcrop in the ocean surrounded by crashing waves. Walking through endless stalls selling touristy crap wasn’t pleasant, and the crowd was thick, but we found a nice spot on the next headland over from the temple where we could look back on the temple and at surfers down below as the sun made its progress toward the horizon. The sunset was spectacular and certainly worth watching.

Ketut made quick work of the drive to the airport and we were there in plenty of time to have a bite to eat before checking in, boarding and flying off. The flight was fine and we touched down in Singapore on schedule at 00:45 and took a taxi in to Laurie’s place, once again marvelling at how orderly Singapore is.

I had to wake early to get organized and out the door to make my 11:00am flight. Kristi is staying in Singapore for a few days, then Hong Kong for a night before heading to Vancouver (and work). We were sad to say goodbye, but I’m very happy that we were lucky enough to share a great trip together.

My Air Asia flight got me to Bangkok just after noon, and the taxi ride in was surprisingly fast compared to past years. A new train to the airport that is under construction will improve things even more. I checked in to the Atlanta, then walked to the local 7/11 for water and a SIM card for my phone. Back at the hotel I made contact with local folks who I want to see, and I relaxed.

In the early evening I was invited out to see the Loy Kratong celebrations down on the Chao Phraya river by Alex Duke from PSI, the NGO I will be volunteering for here, in Laos and in Phnom Penh. Alex is a very friendly young guy from Australia and England. He and his girlfriend met me on the riverside under the Taksin bridge, which was a feat in itself given the dense crowd. The festival is a time to give thanks for the year’s water, and is celebrated at rivers and lakes (and ponds and public fountains). It involves launching colourful floating offerings with a prayer of thanks. After enjoying the crowd and the sights for a bit, we paid 20 Baht (66 cents) for a 20 minute boat ride up the river with a gaggle of other folks clutching their offerings. The river was raging, and was lined with colourful light displays and populated with many festive boats. We chugged upstream to near Wat Arun, apparently an auspicious vicinity to launch the offerings. As we returned southwards, we were waved to the side of the river by an officious police boat and made to sit there. About ten minutes later we were treated to a front-row view of a mid-river fireworks display sponsored by three hotels, with one barge in front of each stretching off in front of us. I’m not usually a huge fan of fireworks, but these were pretty impressive because of their proximity and context.

Once docked again we wandered around a bit longer, then rode the skytrain homeward, them to their apartment and me to the Atlanta.

I met Thor for breakfast in the hotel this morning at 9:00, then we went for a walk, first to the Erawin Shrine (Hindu, but very popular with Thais), where we watched eight dancers sing and dance with not much gusto. They are paid to dance by people praying at the shrine, and they do it all day most likely, so I can understand their lack of vim. We turned south down Ratchamdamri Road to Lumphini Park, a large, well-groomed and attractive park with trees, orchids and moderately-intimidating lizards swimming in the lake.

As lunch was approaching, we went to the food court at the large MBK mall near the National Stadium. The food court was heavenly, with stall after stall offering every imaginable Thai delight, plus some international goodies. For 100 Baht (three or so dollars), I had a spicy papaya salad (made fresh and professionally in a giant mortar and pestal), a sticky rice, black bean and coconut milk desert, and an iced coffee. I even had four Baht change.

In the afternoon I headed north to the Mo Chit Skytrain station, then took a cab to O-zone, a drop-in centre and needle exchange for IDUs (intravenous drug users) run by PSI. The staff, volunteers and clients were a wonderful group of people, and I spent the several hours photo-documenting their work: an outreach worker meeting, condom education and recreation (playing music, watching DVDs, eating and relaxing in a safe environment). I felt welcomed and appreciated by everyone there. I’ll be sending them a CD of my images once I’m back in Canada.

One of the staff drove me on his motorbike to the Ari transit station and I rode back to the hotel. This entry has been the focus of my attention since then, but soon I’ll hopefully join Alex and Thor for a beer and dinner.

Written by sockeyed

November 14, 2008 at 02:00

Chiang Mai and Mango Sticky Rice

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I’m feeling somewhat satiated after finally getting my mango sticky rice. I arrived in Chiang Mai almost 24 hours ago, but it took until breakfast this morning to get some. I’m spending my time in Chiang Mai photographing a project by an NGO called NEED which promotes sustainable local development and human rights issues. The initiative is called the “Food Security and Human Rights Awareness Project.” The subject of my documentation is actually a young Quebecois volunteer who is funded to do work here by CUSO. The project he is leading is the creation of a small farm which will be used to train Burmese in practices of sustainable organic agriculture and educate them about human rights issues. Nicholas, the volunteer or ‘cooperant’, is very passionate and driven about the work, putting in long hours seven days a week in most cases. He is working out of the NEED office here in Chiang Mai. The office is an open-air house that is actually home to about six Arakanese Burmese, from the state of Arakan in the far west, right next to Bangladesh. All are in Thailand illegally and will face 10 days in jail and deportation if caught by the authorities. All arrived here independently of each other.

The farm itself is 20km from town. We got there on motor scooters on some of the more chaotic but actually reasonably safe roads. To call it a farm is a bit of a stretch; it’s only about 3 acres or so, and has one bamboo house that they built together, but it makes sense that it’s small as it should replicate conditions back in Burma. The land is mostly planted in rice from seed that they scavenged and collected. There is some mixing of crops, too: beans, okra, pumpkin, banana, mango and herbs all grow in raised beds among the rice. It is harvest time, so I watched Nicholas and two of the Burmese harvesting the rice with sickles. One, Kyaw Aye, was a real pro and could gather up great bushels in short order. It was hard work, though, no doubt. Nicholas was right in the middle of the action, and he spends every day out on the farm. He seems to really thrive on the work, though. He certainly doesn’t take the easy way here, working alongside the Burmese farmers. His intention is to stay for 5 years. We all spent a great late afternoon in the fields, and I think that I got some decent shots in the warm, low-angle light. Back in town we socialized over some beers in a local Thai watering hole. Six big bottles of beer and snacks came to about $11. My treat.

We’ll be going out to the farm again over the next few days. Tomorrow will be a big work day – I’ll hire a car (they have a very limited budget) and we’ll take all the Burmese folk out to the farm. They plan to raise beds, and harvest and thresh rice. Should be an amazing experience. Jeremy arrives on saturday. I hope to take him to the farm, but we’re not likely to spend a ton of time here before heading east to Luang Prabang in Laos.

Getting to Chiang Mai was a bit of a whirlwind experience. Flying on Cathay Pacific, I landed in Hong Kong on sunday night and made my way by public bus to Kin-yi’s apartment in Tsuen Wan. She’s on some mysterious trip to the UK, from what I know. A good night’s sleep and I was up and running errands around Hong Kong – getting memory cards, portable hard drives, and dropping things off at Joseph Yao’s shop in TST. It was a bit surreal, obviously.

That night I flew to Bangkok and arrived at midnight. I put myself up in the KT Guesthouse at CUSO’s suggestion. It was kind of out in the middle of nowhere, but it was convenient to their office. After a lousy sleep, I stumbled to the subway and rode a couple of stops, then walked to the CUSO office, which was even more in the middle of nowhere. There I met with the regional director, Thomas Achillles and we planned out my trip and contacts in various places. He treated me to a great lunch in a nearby eatery.

I collected my things from the hotel and zipped downtown on the subway then skytrain to the Sala Daeng station, where I met Simon Larbarlestier, an English photographer living in Bangkok whom I’d met through a couple of online forums. Being a small photographers world, we also know quite a few folks in common. We had a good long chat, joined partway through by another local friend (a painter), over ploughman platters and lager in an Irish pub. I’ll see Simon again in Siem Reap in a while.

A short subway ride and I’m at the train station. CUSO provided me with a ticket on the night train to Chiang Mai, which was a great experience. I love trains, especially sleeper trains. It’s a narrow-gauge railway, so there weren’t separate compartments, just semi-ingenious fold-down bunks and convertible seats. The train pulled out at 7:35pm. I read The Great War for Civilization, then crawled into my curtained-off little bed area. I slept very well, bouncing down the rails. We pulled in to Chiang Mai at 9:45am and I took a tuk-tuk to the Roong Ruang hotel by the Ta Phae gate, where I stayed two years ago. Good location and decent enough. Nicholas met me there, and we set out on our day.

Written by sockeyed

November 15, 2007 at 17:29