The Sockeyed Blog

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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

Posted in Photography, Travel

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Floating Temple, Music in the Rain, Thunderous Massage

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The ricefields in front of our room are now being planted with seedlings in perfect rows with incredible speed. My own back aches just looking at how the men work bent over double, a cluster of seedlings in one had, planting rapidly with the other, pushing a floating basket of seedlings behind them with their calves as they move backwards down the row.

Yesterday’s excursion was to Lake Bratan to visit the Pura Ulun Danu Bratan, the floating temple. The four of us hired Angelo, a younger driver that Rod and Sandy have used, for the day. I woke early and wrote up the previous days’ adventures, then we ordered breakfast to our room and ate on the balcony overlooking the paddies. Around 10:00 we met the others and set out. We got off to a rough start at the gas station when Angelo backed into a stack of propane cannisters (fortunately empty) and sent them rolling in every direction, right after telling us what a cautious driver he was. With this exception, he proved to be correct.

The drive to Lake Bratan was straightforward: a climbing road directly north of Ubud. Up we went into the clouds, and rice transitioned into fruit and vegetables. We descended down to the lake under ominous-looking clouds and piled out of the car to look around.

The temple doesn’t float, but is built on a small island just offshore. It is very picturesque, almost pagoda-like with an ascending series of thatched roofs. The temple is one of the primary icons of Bali and can be seen on the 50,000INR note. There were also temple elements on the land including two covered open areas. Under one a gamelan orchestra was setting up, and under the other was a group preparing offerings and chanting.

A rain started and judging by the fact that locals ran to shelter, I knew that it would be a big one. I took shelter with the gamelan, now playing a very rhythmic piece that rose and fell in waves of volume. I don’t know if it was technically a gamelan as it was comprised of drums, gongs and cymbals only, not the keyed gamelan played with hammers. I found the music mesmerizing and made several recordings. The rain beat hard all around making it all very atmospheric. During this time a duck and a chicken – alive, wrapped in leaves and weighted with stones – were sacrificed from a small boat in the lake. This, I would imagine, is a reflection of the animist beliefs that have mixed with Hinduism on the island, although I could be mistaken.

The rain let up slightly and we made our way back to the car and set off, stopping at a fruit market in the town to buy rambutans, mangosteen and bananas. We were asked to pay an exorbitant 250,000 INR ($30) for a small selection of fruit, but the driver and I talked the woman down to 60,000, which I still think was way too much, but the fruit was good (with the exception of one mangosteen that exploded with ants when I opened it and got thrown out of the moving car like a live hand grenade).

We spent the rest of the drive looking at dramatic rice terraces in the Jatiluwih area. There were several steep valleys blanketed in beautiful vibrant green terraces, and we forced the driver to stop every few hundred metres so that we could jump out and take pictures. Rod was most excited to see a father and two sons swimming nakedly in a stream next to the road. The boys squealed happily when we drove by.

The trip back into Ubud was long, down a rough road, then zig-zagging back and forth to cross a series of rivers and valleys to get from west to east towards Ubud. We dropped Rod and Sandy off at their hotel and said goodbye as they are leaving for Vancouver today.

Back at the hotel we had a simple supper (mee goreng for me), then walked over to the Zen Spa down the road for some pampering. Well, I had a very impressive massage, but I wouldn’t call it relaxing as the fellow who gave it to me was incredibly strong and almost had me whimpering several times. In fact, I’m pretty sure that I did whimper when we worked on my calves and hamstrings. The setting of the spa was beautiful, though. My room had an open wall that faced out onto a garden, and during the massage a thunderstorm developed. The rain poured heavily into the garden, and lightning flashed and thunder crashed constantly.

Back at the hotel I sat in the open area near reception and connected to the internet with my laptop. I answered and sent some emails, and uploaded a whole series of postings to my blog. I also drank a glass of Balinese rosé, which was passable and fun. The storm put on a good show all around. Another early night – we were in bed and reading at around 10:00.

Written by sockeyed

November 4, 2008 at 17:00

Posted in Travel

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I have spent Halloweens in some interesting places in my time. One that springs to mind was back in around 2000 when I was in Wilmington, North Carolina and we spent the night out on the town drinking and eating raw oysters by the plateful. Today I didn’t eat any raw seafood but I had some pretty tasty Balinese fish at one point.

It was not a breakfast though. Breakfast was poolside at the hotel, and consisted of tea, fruit (rambutan and papaya), toast and fresh eggs. We were surrounded by Germans, and I couldn’t help but wonder what they though of staying at the Swastika Bungalows. Obviously the meaning in a Hindu/Buddhist context is very different, but it must have resonated on some level with them. Did they choose it to help return the meaning to its true and good meaning? Or did they just decide to stay there because it’s a nice place to stay?

Sanur is not unpleasant although there doesn’t seem to be a ton going on. It’s relatively quiet, which I like. The beach is OK but a bit plain for these parts. We did enjoy a longish walk along it past a number of beachside restaurants and some swish hotels, plus many brightly-coloured small outrigger boats and brightly-sunburned European tourists, mostly of the large variety. We were offered many a massage and pedicure and shop visitation and boat ride. That got a bit tiring but is not unexpected. We walked a long loop south down the beach and north back through town, returning in the heat of midday (minimal shadows here just south of the equator). We lunched at the Bonsai Café, on the beach north of our bungalows. I had a Balinese dish (bebes?) – fish in curry sauce grilled in a banana leaf, served with rice, green beans in gado gado, sambal and a great fresh chili onion relish. Tasty stuff. Kristi had a grilled three-fish combo that was also quite good.

After that, we waded out to a pondok out on a breakwater and splashed about some in the surf. Back at the bungalows we floated a bit in the pool as well, but it was actually hot and not entirely refreshing.

Kristi is struggling some with the heat and finds it makes her feel ill at times or just plain weak. I hope that she gets used to it while we’re here because I don’t think that it will get much cooler.

Tonight we had stunning massages at a place right across the street from our bungalows for the princely sum of about $10 for 1½ hours. It was in the Balinese style, using just the right amount of pressure and body weight, plus we got a scouring with hot bundles of herbs (turmeric? other earthy things?) and rubbed with scented oils. I came within millimetres of falling asleep, and in fact may have dozed slightly once or twice. Kristi and I looked at each other very groggily afterwards and had a lot of trouble stringing sentences together. A late meal at a nearby restaurant associated with the Swastika and we headed back to our room for what will probably be an early night.

Written by sockeyed

November 1, 2008 at 00:00

Posted in Travel

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