Surathani and the islands

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Mae Nam   robdougallphotography

 

At 12.28 Train 48 pulled out of Prachuap Khiri Khan station and just over 4 hours later – a jaunt by comparison with earlier journeys – arrived at Surathani. Too late in the day for the ferries for the islands, we took the bus outside the station to the Lomprayah city office –  20 baht – to put our names down for the first ferry on the following morning and then a sawthaeng to a hotel for the night. At 8.30 we were back by tuk tuk at the office and at 9am on the bus to the ferry pier at Donsak an hour away, and an hour after that we were disembarking at Nathon Pier on the west coast of Ko Samui. What an efficient organisation Lomprayah has become.

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Mae Nam      robdougallphotopgraphy.co.uk

Thirty minutes by minibus took us to Mae Nam on the north of the island to the Coco Palm Resort and a bungalow in a tropical garden, luxury by our standards, where for the next eight days we lounged bedside the sea and read, took long walks on the beach, ate seafood pad Thai and green curry and listened to the weather reports from Devon: bitter winter winds from the East, rain, heavy frosts. We woke in the morning to birdsong: coucals, mynah birds, sun birds, bulbuls, drongoes and warblers. At dusk the garden was heavy with the scent of frangipani and jasmine.

To identify some of the unfamiliar bird life we took to the internet and came across the Koh Samui Sunset Birdwatchers site. These are our kind of people; no sweaty treks through the jungled interior or getting up at godless hours for them. They describe themselves as authors of a ‘self-confessed birdwatching guide for the lazy’ and amongst the advice they offer is to ‘sit somewhere pretty, order a round of beers and wait …. Stay at a resort with extensive gardens where you can watch from the veranda in your pyjamas …. Take lunch or drinks at the Santiburi Golf Club and observe the birdlife from your table’. And sure enough, some of the images on their site include a distant view of a sea eagle out over the water, taken from a beach side bar, a silhouetted drongo on a branch at the Jungle Club and a red whispered bulbul in a cage. This is the Art of Coarse Birdwatching. To be fair, there were also some excellent images on the site and we found them very useful.

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The beach at Mae Nam, Ko Samui

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Chiang Mon Beach Ko Samui

We had expected Ko Samui to have suffered from some of the worst excesses of mass tourism in the twenty years since we were last here, but Mae Nam, described by the island’s tourist site as Ko Samui’s last backpacker beach, seemed to have escaped. That may be pushing things too far, but it’s still a relatively quiet rural enclave, set back from the road which encircles the island. Accommodation of all kinds, from wooden shacks on stilts to one or two high end resorts, have managed to establish themselves in the tropical landscape without obliterating it. The quiet narrow lanes weave in and out of the palm groves and water buffalo wade in the shallow pools, backwaters and fields still flooded from the two months’ rain that preceded our arrival. In those lanes too are are an assortment of bars and eating places, many not grand enough to be called restaurants. We tried a number of them but kept returning to the Peace Kitchen, a modest place with modest prices, friendly staff, cold beer and excellent seafood phad thai.

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Mae Nam beach

 

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Sun down on Mae Nam beach

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The three kilometre long stretch of yellow sand at Mae Nam is palm fringed and the accommodation that sits on it is unobtrusive. There are some wonderful Robinson Crusoe style beach bars constructed of flotsam and jetsam. On our early morning walks we had the beach to ourselves, but for a few friendly dogs. At mid morning every day three fishing boats pulled up on to the sand to unload their catch in baskets and take them to the local restaurants.

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The morning catch

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The Old Man and the Sea

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VIP Lounge

Mae Nam looks across to Koh Phan Ngan, a 20 minute ferry ride away, where the infamous Full Moon Party was to take place on the 12th and just along the beach at Pra Larn  pier crowds of would be revellers were embarking. We were to share a ferry back to the mainland with some of these a day after the festivities. It was like being on a boat with the walking dead.

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The view to Ko Pha Ngan

So much for Mae Nam, but venture out on to the road that runs for 50k around the island and it’s a different story: paradise lost. Ko Samui’s beaches are still beautiful and the interior unspoilt but in the morning and late afternoon when the hotel workers are heading back home the ring road becomes the island’s M25. Chaweng, the island’s prime destination, is simply dreadful: crass, cacophonous, crowded, full of glitzy shopping malls, fast food joints, seedy bars, touts, jet skis, sawthaengs blaring out western pop music and promoting Muay Thai events at the local stadium; Tropical Murphy’s Irish Pub – it says it all. The beautiful beach is accessible only through one or two public alleys; the resorts and bars have taken over the beach front access. The place is popular with Russian and Chinese package tourists.

At Cheong Mon, where we stayed in a beach shack all those years ago, the resorts’ sun loungers and massage beds crowd the narrow beach leaving little space to walk. Never go back they say.

 

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Incoming storm

But back in the sanctuary of Mae Nam we contentedly idled away our remaining days on the island before taking the minibus, ferry, bus and overnight sleeper back to Bangkok and, three days later, to the English winter.

Train No 10 to Bangkok …. Train No 43 to Prachuap Khiri Khan on the Gulf of Thailand

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Tranquil Ao Prachuap

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The overnight sleeper pulled out of Chiang Mai station at 6pm. By 6.30 it was dark and by 7.30 the attendant had come to make up the beds. We were awoken at 5.30 the following morning, still dark, and crawled the last few miles into Bangkok past roads that were already jammed with rush hour traffic and a vast network of new flyover construction and into Hue Lamphu station 30 minutes late at 7.20. It was a short stroll over to platform 7 where the 08.05 to Surathani would depart. The timing could hardly have been better.

We’d seen nothing of the countryside in our two overnight trips so it was a real delight when we finally left the sprawling squalor of the city behind us as we travelled west towards Nakhon Pathom, the region where many of the flowers that are destined for the Bangkok Flower Market are grown, out into open greenery: rice fields full of white egrets, banana plantations, lotus-covered lakes, palm trees, sugar cane, blue-roofed farms; then south through Petchaburi, with its distinctive hilltop palace overlooking the town full of mischievous monkeys, and south through that narrow strip of Thailand, only 11 kilometres wide in places with the blue waters of the Gulf of Thailand to one side and the mountains of Burma to the other.

At mid morning the attendant delivered the second of our free meals, a fiery mackerel curry that brought water to the eyes, a catch to the back of the throat and a streaming nose.

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Sleepy Prachuap station

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All stations should be like this

At 12.30 we pulled into the neat little red roofed station at Prachuap Khiri Khan, Thai flags gaily fluttering along the platform, a shiny brass bell to ring the arrivals and departures and frangipani at the station entrance. Amongst the boxes and packages waiting to be transported, wrapped and bound in burnt orange cotton, is a six foot tall Buddhist effigy. There are a dozen smiling station staff, each in a uniform appropriate to their function. All stations should be like this.

It was a short walk to our hotel, the Grand – ‘No pets, no durians’ it says in reception – where we checked in and were shown to our room, the Junior Suite on the sixth floor, two stylish rooms plus bathroom and a magnificent spreading view from the corner windows of the bay and Khao Chong Krajok, or Mirror Tunnel Mountain and its mountain top temple. £30 for this? It seemed too good to be true. It was. Before we had time to unpack two very apologetic hotel staff, sent in twos to give each other moral support perhaps, appeared to tell us that there had been a mistake and that the room had an electrical problem and would we please move to a room along the corridor. There were no complaints however. It was another Junior Suite. We could still just about make out the bay from the balcony and to compensate there was a view away from the sea over the mountains into Burma.

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Too good to be true

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The sleepy seaside town of Prachuap Khiri Khan sits on beautiful Ao Pruchuap Bay, flanked on either side by limestone karsts. Like many Bristish seaside towns today, it seems poised between a flourishing and lively past and an uncertain future. There’s a pier that seems to serve no purpose, one or two hotel blocks in brutalist concrete that wouldn’t be out of place in Sixties Eastern Europe, sun-faded posters advertising non existent boat trips around the bay and a museum that appears to have closed down. But if this points to someone’s vainglorious project that came to nothing, none of that would be fair to the town or to the pleasant five days we spent there.

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Drying squid on the promenade

In the waterfront bars and eating places and the guesthouses set back from the front and at the night market stalls there’s plenty of life, particularly as evening sets in, and the seafood is abundant and cheap. And at the weekend, when the hawkers set up their stalls all along the the promenade, the seafront comes alive with light and colour, noise and the smells of a bewildering array of cooking food: crab, squid, sausages, grilled mackerel on sticks, sweet corn, noodles, stir fries in woks twice the size of a dustbin lid, pancakes, huge pans of bubbling  caramel in sesame stirred with a wooden paddle. Further along are the clothes stalls, the stall selling Siamese fighting fish in reused soda bottles, jewellery, make up, hats. The seafront is suddenly packed and bustling, grandma and grandpa, mum and dad, babies and children, strolling, laughing, bartering, eating, drinking. Where have they all come from?

But by early Sunday morning the whole promenade was eerily empty once more; the crowds had gone and so had the stall holders and their stalls. There was nothing to indicate that they had ever been there, not an empty bottle, not a piece of litter, nothing to show for the previous evening’s festivities, leaving not a rack behind, all vanished into thin air.

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Siamese Fighting fish

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Siamese fighting fish

Prachuap has no beach to speak of. At high tide the sea comes up to the promenade wall but a few kilometres along in either direction there are fine stretches of sand. To the south is Ao Maon which actually sits within the Wing 5 base of the Thai Airforce. This was one of the seven places on the gulf where the Japanese invaded Thailand in 1941 and the site of fierce fighting. The guide book promised top gun fighter pilots lounging on the beaches. We paid 100 bhat for two sit up and beg bikes and set off mid morning, stopping as required to sign in at the base entrance, and riding through the well tended grounds until we reached the airstrip itself. A barrier had been lowered across the road and a young soldier stood on duty. We joined the waiting traffic, a few motor bikes and a car, expecting to see an F16 or a Tom Cat scream up into the sky. Instead, a doddery looking single propeller spotter plane, its nose adorned with an aggressive but unconvincing shark’s maw, puttered past and rose sluggishly up into the air. We later discovered that it was the only aircraft stationed there. The sentry raised the barrier and we rode across the runway and on a further two kilometres to Ao Maon, a beautiful beach fringed by casuarina trees. It was Chinese New Year’s Day and a weekend and the place was crowded with Thai families in holiday mood.  We cycled on to the fishing village beyond, to return on a week day when things were quieter.

On the following day we upgraded to a 125cc Honda Click and suddenly we were putt putting along the sea front beside a mirror calm bay and through the paddy fields at 40 kilometres an hour sharing Toad’s exhilaration at the freedom of the Open Road. This was the way to travel. Poop Poop! We set off north along the coast, across the creek with its collection of fishing boats, and took a side road that ran to the point between Ao Noi and Ao Khan Kradai bays to the beautiful Ai Noi Wat with its rich red painted teak walls and pillars and glittering gold roof and its community of monks living in raised wooden bungalows beside the sea and beneath a jungle covered karst. It was an idyllic setting. Little blizzards of white butterflies gathered in the shade beside the lotus pond and in a tropical garden full of jackfruit, pomegranate, mango, rose apple, palm, hibiscus and frangipani. There are worse places to devote yourself to a spiritual life. We were told to expect an unpleasant whiff as the temple raises swiftlets for the edible birds’ nest business but we detected nothing.

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Ai Noi Wat

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Returning, we stopped off at the busy fishing village and watched the catch being unloaded then rode back. We kept the bike for another day, explored the coast to the north and then south and spent an afternoon at the now near deserted Ao Maon beach.

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Small World Bar

We ate well and cheaply at Prachuap: Thai curries, red, green and yellow, Massaman curry, papaya salad, spicy beef salad, spicy seafood soups and pad Thai; but perhaps not as adventurously as we might have done, given what was on offer on the seafood stalls. There can’t be many opportunities to sample the prehistoric looking horseshoe crab. Next time, maybe.

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South to Surathani and the islands tomorrow

Train No 9 to Chiang Mai

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Train No 9 to Chiang Mai is the Rolls Royce of the State Railway of Thailand. Recently built by the Chinese it’s swish, clean and comfortable. The carriages are spotless and brightly lit, the sleeper bunks are broad, the sheets are crisp, the air conditioning is polar, the digital information screens are 21st century, the staff are polite and deferential. That said, there are a number of ways in which It doesn’t match India Rail despite the latter’s crowded carriages, noisy fellow travellers, onboard wildlife and ingrained grubbiness. Instead of a constant procession of chai wallahs and food sellers who hop on at each station with freshly prepared treats and meals, Thai Rail’s new train offers a rather sterile buffet car serving microwaved ready meals. We went for Thai green curry and fried egg. It was actually very tasty. And those glaring lights stay on all night, which is odd on a sleeper train. But it would be churlish to complain about the luxury when the 13 hour 700 klm journey, leaving Bangkok in the early evening, cost a little over £25 each.

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Tasting a lot better than it looks – microwaved green Thai curry & fried egg

Chiang Mai was refreshingly cool when we arrived soon after daybreak and negotiated a ride in a Rot Daang, the two bench red trucks that serve as the city’s public transport, to our hotel just inside the walls of the old town near the Thapae Gate.

The city is busy, not only because like us, travellers have abandoned the south and its rains for the north, but the Chinese New Year is only days away. The popularity of Chiang Mai with Chinese tourists is a relatively new phenomenon. Certainly we weren’t aware of it when we were last here. According to reports, one reason is the release in 2012 of Lost in Thailand, a film which broke the Chinese box office record previously set by Titanic. In the hotels, eating places and tourist sites Chinese groups and families far outnumber other visitors.

Many come to the city to experience the activities on offer in Chiang Mai and the surrounding foothills: we’d done the rafting, jungle trekking, elephant rides, hill tribe visits and cooking class when we last here nearly two decades ago and weren’t tempted by one that was new to us – the zip wire.  Flight of the Gibbon was the original zip wire company and they offer a network of an astounding five kilometres of wires beneath the jungle canopy an hour away from Chiang Mai.

As for us, we settled for gentler pursuits. Inside its moat, and apart from its main thoroughfares, the old city is a mostly traffic free and tranquil place to wander and pass the day. You are never more than a few hundred yards from a wat and far less than that from a food stall or restaurant. Wat Phra Singh, the Lion Buddha, is the largest and most significant but there are scores of others. The joy is coming across them as you spend the morning wandering aimlessly around the lanes and alleyways, stopping for a beer or iced coffee or a browse at the produce at Somhet Market, as the whim takes you.

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Colonial tea room

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Discovering Chiang Mai’s quiet green spaces

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Chinese New Year

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Red tilapia at Lert Ros

Lert Ros is a simple eating place on Soi 1, Thanon Ratchadamnoen, specialising in Isan food. The open kitchen is on the street where the cook stands, like a maestro before his instruments, behind a row of oil drum braziers filled with glowing charcoal and on which the speciality of the house, red tilapia, fresh from the city’s River Ping we were told, stuffed with lemongrass, is barbecued. The diners sit behind at wooden tables in the dim interior. We ate there twice; the fish was as good as it looked. With it we ate another Isan speciality, sour and spicy som tum salad, made with grated unripe green papaya and peanuts. Delicious.

At dusk on the square near the Thapae Gate the crowds gather to watch the street performers: a young girl in traditional dress performing a graceful dance; a fire dancer, a bare chested young man blowing blasts of fire up into the night sky; an old man with a drooping moustache and long grey hair singing and playing on a western drum kit and bizarrely and inexplicably, a long horned cow skull attached to the handlebars of the bicycle next to him. Sunday night is Sunday Walking Market night and the street artists give way to the professionals. On a large stage with a full lighting rig and sound system a singer and his band are backed by a troupe of synchronised dancers in white bejewelled hot pants. The traffic on Rachadamnoen Road gives way to the crowds who weave their way between the hundreds of hawker stalls that have appeared during the late afternoon: trinkets, handicrafts, clothes, souvenirs and, naturally, food, untold quantities of it.

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Wat Phra That Doi Sukhet

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Holiday crowds at Doi Sukhet

In the morning we negotiated a shared Rot Daang to Wat Phra That Doi Sukhet, one of Northern Thailand’s most sacred sites, sitting high on Doi Sukhet, the jungle clad mountain that dominates Chiang Mai, and joined the crowds making their way up the final 306 steps to the golden chedi and a view out over the city and its airport far below us.

We stopped off on the way back to the city at Chiang Mai Zoo and spent the afternoon wandering about the lush grounds that sprawl up the forested slopes of Doi Sukhet, sought out the exotic bird life in the huge aviary fashioned in a canopied valley, fed the elephant, visited the very impressive aquarium and returned to the city in a Rot Daang with seven young bashful novice monks for a well-earned cold beer and iced coffee.  That night we ate at the Night Bazaar – barbecued chicken, pad Thai, seafood noodles and, of course, papaya salad.

South, to Bangkok, and straight on to the Gulf of Thailand tomorrow

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Sharing the Rot Daang

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Chiang Mai Zoo

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Bangkok January 2016

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Not India – Thailand

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A last minute decision to head north rather than south was a wise one. The forecast for the islands is still for rain and thunderstorms. We’ve heard plenty of tales from fellow travellers who have encountered conditions nearly as bad as we did five years ago when we took that traumatic bus trip through flooded countryside north from Krabi. This year we hear that bridges have collapsed, main roads are under water and the resort guesthouses are empty. A Bulgarian couple told us that they had flown down to Krabi two weeks ago, got a few miles out of the airport before being turned back on a flooded road and flew straight back to Bangkok.

 

Our last minute change of plan has meant that we have avoided all that. Since we had three  days to fill in Bangkok before taking the train north to Chiang Mai and since it’s been 17 years since we did the main sights it seemed like a good idea to revisit them, beginning with a trip on a packed river express boat along the bustling Chao Phraya to Chang Pier and the Grand Palace and Wat Pho.

 

It’s over four months since the death of the Thai King and the country is in mourning. The whole city is draped in black and white bunting. There are shrines on the streets and in the wats where the king’s photograph is surrounded by garlands of white jasmine and orchids. Police and soldiers wear black armbands and the sailors wear little black and white ribbons. The newsreaders on the tv are all dressed in black.

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Shrines to the Thai King

The Grand Palace marks the focus of the nation’s grief and here Thais of all ages, all dressed in black, form endless queues to shuffle past the urn that contains his ashes. As tourists we couldn’t help but feel that we were interlopers.

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The Reclining Buddha, Wat Po

We spent the day wandering about both sights, mugged up on our temple architecture vernacular so we could tell our bots from our prangs, queued to file past the reclining Buddha, admired the cloud pruned shrubbery, smiled at the troop of junior Boy Scouts fidgeting as they sat cross legged listening to the lecture of the temple guide, declined the invitation to buy 108 coins to drop into the 108 bronze bowls, joined the crowds at the entrance of Wat Phra Kaew to gaze in at the Emerald Buddha (surprisingly small and not made of emeralds) and were appropriately dazzled by the inlaid mosaics and gleaming gold chedis. We returned by river express via Wat Arum, the Temple of Dawn.

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Temple guardian, Wat Po

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Wat Po, Bangkok

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That evening we ate green curry and duck and deep fried holy basil and drank cold Singha beer at Joke Mr Lek’s street restaurant in an alley in Banglamphu and then had a stroll along the notorious backpacker ghetto of Khaosan Road and over into Rambuttri Soi, close enough to walk from our hotel in Samsen Soi 2 and far enough away to be thankful that we are not staying there. It’s much the same as we remember it from the last time we saw it five years ago but there’s more of it: more tattoo shops, more cheap hostels, more joints selling ‘very strong’ alcohol by the bucket, more live music bars, more neon, more massage beds, more crowds, more street stalls. It’s all noise, energy and excess.

I don’t remember seeing the carts with their trays of deep fried insects and scorpions before; they seemed to be doing a better trade from the 10 bhat charge to photograph them than through sales.

A welcome sign at the entrance of a shop selling bags: No Food, No Drink, No Smoking, No Exchange, No Return, No Refund, No Photographs. Thank you.

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Jok Mr Lek’s street restaurant

The following morning we set off on the river express again, an efficient way of avoiding Bangkok’s traffic – when the boats don’t break down as ours did I leaving us stranded and waiting for a replacement – to Rajinee Pier and the wholesale market area and to Pak Khlong Talat, (‘market at the mouth of the canal’) the Flower Market in particular. This is where the flowers arrive by boat and truck late at night from the countryside at Nakhon Pathom and beyond, some as far away as Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai, to be unpacked, sold, distributed or made into garlands. It is here that the street flowers sellers come to buy sacks of white jasmine and yellow marigold to make the phuang malai or flower garlands.

By the time we arrived, mid morning, it was relatively quiet as most of the business of the day had been completed before dawn. Nevertheless, the market was filled with the colour and scent of baskets, bowls and sacks full of cut flowers and blossom: white jasmine, orchids, chrysanthemums, marigolds, roses….. On the stalls women were stringing together blossoms with tiny needles or constructing the cone-shaped offerings known as baisri, happy for us to stand, watch and be impressed by their dexterity. We were even given the tiny bananas used in their offerings.

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Pak Khlong Talat

All this was in contrast to the crowds of Yaowarat or Chinatown, a few streets to the north, where we were happy to get lost in the bustling alleyways amongst the stalls selling what was for us a baffling array of food and drink, fish or fowl, animal or vegetable, dried, roasted, boiled, soaked and reconstituted we often couldn’t tell. Then it was back along the river for cold beer and iced coffee, a couple of hours of reading and relaxation and back to Mr Lek’s for his shrimps. It’s his seafood he’s noted for after all.

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Yoawarat  – Chinatown

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Grating Ginger

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Dried squid

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Fish or fowl?

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Lemongrass

We passed following day doing nothing very much, wandering around Banglamphu and marking time until the late afternoon when we headed to Hue Lamphu station and Train No 10 to Chiang Mai.

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Hue Lamphu Station and Train No 9 to Chiang Mai

Chowara Beach & Kovalam

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The penultimate post from this year’s trip and it’s a selection of photos taken of the boys playing on Chowara Beach, the catch being brought in there and various shots of Kovalam. The final installment will feature some of the processed images from the trip.

Thanks for following this year’s trip and blog

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Chowara seine net fishermen


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Chowara Beach Boys


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Chowara Beach Boys


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Chowra Beach Boys


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Fisherman on Chowara Beach


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Bringing in the catch on Chowara Beach


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Chowara BeachEnter a caption

 

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Chewara Beach


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The mosque at Vizhinjam


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Vizhinjam Mosque


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Lighhouse Beach, Kovalam


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Kovalam


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Christmas Lights at Kovalam


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Sunset watching, Kovalam


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Sunset watching, Kovalam

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Sunset watching, Kovalam


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First Light, Rockholm Beach, Kovalam

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Return to Varkala : cliff-top Paradise Lost

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Along the cliff top at Varkala

The weather report told us that it the temperature was 94deg but with a dense haze, a breathless atmosphere and 70 percent humidity we weren’t arguing with their assessment that it would feel like 101. Travelling north along the road heading to Kollam we sympathized with the policeman directing traffic with one hand and holding an umbrella above his head in the other.
This was a return to Varkala, first visited 12 years ago and again a year later. Inevitably the place has grown. The cliff top guesthouses, shops and restaurants now have a much more substantial air; many of the once flimsy stalls now have glass fronted windows and fan cooled interiors and everything has expanded, north and south along the cliff top path but also back from it through the coconut palms. The scruffy collections of thatched bungalows are now calling themselves resorts and there are some set ups that look as though they might just about merit the name. But there is still token homage to the hippy spirit that drew travellers here a few decades ago: in the restaurant and guesthouse names – Little Tibet, the Temple of Poetry, Divine Bliss, the Bohemian Masala Arts Cafe, Dream, Soul and Surf, although the Santa Claus Village Resort and the SS Beach Resort take some explaining, but this is India; the Tibet Market is still here, along with the Nirvana Yoga centres, the Ayurvedic massages, the Eco mud cottages and Tibetan Singing Bowl Therapy; on the beach below the cliff there are still individuals striking the meditation pose and sunrise and sunset yoga classes.
The bookstalls promote the usual stuff: Khalil Gilbran, the Mahabaratha, and, bizarrely, right in the centre of the book stand, Carol Thatcher’s ‘A Swim-on Part in the Goldfish Bowl’. India again. It had disappeared by the following day – bought or removed from the display as unsuitable. Who knows? In the restaurants, Nepalese waiters offer everything from momos to chow mien and spaghetti carbonara, Mexican enchiladas to Israeli falafel lafa and Keralan Meen moilee and palak paneer – and the best peanut masala we have tasted.


Varkala is laid back, comfortable, indulging. There’s no hard sell from the shop keepers: ‘Will you come and look at my shop, my lovely shop’. Many come here to chill out for weeks, months on end and, as seductive as the Land of the Lotos Eaters, you could see that you could quite easily fall under its spell. But the music that plays all day and into the evening in its restaurants is as likely to be Abba as a Shivan chant and that seems to sum Varkala today very appropriately.

The place we are staying, the InDa, is that sort of place, although with much better taste in music, jazz and French chansons. A collection of brick built white-washed cottages in a garden 150 metres back from the cliff top, it’s run by a delightful young Ukranian couple, Alorna and her husband, Alexei. In the shaded seating area you’re as like to hear Russian as well as French and English spoken and it’s a friendly place to while away a few hours, drinking masala tea or iced coffee.

The InDa

The InDa

We breakfast In one of the cliff top restaurants watching a lone swimmer impossibly far out in the Arabian Sea down below us and above, on the uplift air currents above the coconut palms on the cliff top, soaring sea eagles harassed by flocks of Indian crows and an occasional paraglider.

Varkala is the site of the two thousand year old Janardhana Temple and a place of pilgrimage and on the sands at the end of Papanasam Beach where the road from the town runs down to the sea come a succession of families, the men in white dhotis, to receive blessings from the holy men who sit beneath their umbrellas and to carry the offerings of flowers on their head to the water’s edge where they turn and throw them behind them into the waves. The springs which run from the face of the cliff here are believed to have medicinal or holy properties, perhaps both, and these too attract a constant stream of pilgrims.

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Papanasam Beach, Varkala


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Puja on Papanasam Beach, Varkala

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Puja offering

 

Irish painter Pat on Black Beach, Varkala

A few kilometres along the coast to the north is Edava Fishing village where the catch, baskets of small silver fish, is unloaded and spread out in the sun on nets to dry and sea eagles, fifty or more of them, swoop down taking what they can. Here is the best surfing wave we have seen in India although we are not the first to discover it. Between the fishing boats which come and go, and amongst the fishermen sorting their catch and mending nets, a dozen our so beginners are taking their first lesson on rented boards.

 

Landing the catch at Edava

Sea eagles and egrets at Edava

Edava

Edava

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Surfing at Edava

Drying the catch at Edava

We read in The Hindu that the first ever recorded fatality from an object from outer space took place in the grounds of a college in Vellore in Tamil Nadu. And to think, if it had been only 100 kilometres closer – and hit six days later – it could have been us. In the grand scheme of things, in astronomical terms, that’s got to be a very close shave.
 

South again from Varkala Station to Trivandrum, 10 rupees for the one hour journey.

The Guruvayar Express to Thiruvannanthapuram

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The mosque at Vizhinjam, Kerala

….by the very skin of our teeth. Having misread the departure time on the ticket we arrived by tuk tuk at the station to read on the Departures board that our train, the Guruvayar Express, was due to depart in two minutes … from Platform 5! We were on Platform 1, separated from our train by three tracks and two standing trains and the crossing bridge 500 yards away in the opposite direction. It would be unthinkable in England but we took what we saw as the only option, climbing down onto the track, along it and around the engine of the first train, up on to the platform, across it and down again, across another track and, fuelled by a mixture of panic and adrenaline and with Herculean and, in retrospect, unaccountable strength, hoisting our bags and our exhausted and sweating selves up five feet onto and into the carriage of the second of the standing trains, through it and out on to Platform 4 and across it to Platform 5 – where the Guruvayar Express stood, straining at the bit as seen through our eyes. Our carriage, A1, seemed a mile off and we raced, burdened as we were with the packs and flipflops in hand, along the length of the train through the chai sellers, passengers and porters, ready at each second to dive into the open door of the nearest carriage should the train begin to move. And finally, collapsing into our seats, Side Lower and Side Upper, we sat there panting and shaking with relief and disbelief at what we had just done, waiting for the train to depart. Which it did. Twenty minutes later. Indian readers will, of course, be wondering what all the fuss was about.
It was a 10 hour journey to Thiruvannanthapuram, a Saturday afternoon turning to evening and then night as we traced our route back south east towards the tip of the subcontinent and up the west coast, passing through paddy fields, fields of sunflowers, corn, cane and cotton, dry scrub, herds of grazing goats and wallowing pigs, wild peacocks, quiet rural villages, boys playing cricket, past lorries packed with standing passengers waiting at crossings and through deserted stations. At Madurai, whose temple we had visited some years ago, we bought sweet milky coffee and fried savouries wrapped in brown paper from the sellers on the platform, then on through Satur and, as the daylight began to slip away, Kovilpatti and into the night towards Nagercoil and Thiruvannanthapuram.
It was after 11 when we arrived. We negotiated a 500 rupee ride in our old friend the Hindustani taxi with its comfortable bench seats front and back and its springy suspension and bounced our way down to Lighthouse Road Kovalam to Shida’s place, arriving at just after midnight, woke the sleeping houseboy who let us into the room, took a shower to wash off the grime of a day’s travelling in India and collapsed onto the bed under the fan and slept soundly until seven the following morning.

The next day was what we told ourselves was a well-earned day of rest, falling easily into old routines: a long lazy breakfast at the Swiss Cafe, grilled tomatoes, banana and cashew nut porridge and good press coffee, a welcome change after days of idlis, sambar and fiery chutnis; a slow stroll along the beach, a swim in the sea, a cold beer for lunch and a few hours reading in the shade; a gin and tonic at sundown on the roof of a beachside cafe and fish tikka and calamari for dinner. Heavenly.

Tomorrow – on to Varkala.

The temples of Tiruchchirippalli 

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Sri Jambukeswara

Apparently, and unsurprisingly, everyone calls Tiruchchirappalli Trichy. It’s just under an hour by express train (30 rps) from Thanjuvar and we arrived at Trichy Junction at 10 in the morning and took the tuk tuk straight to the hotel. After our experience in Puducherry we are much better at negotiating a good rate with the driver although we suspect that a local would laugh at what we settle on.
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In Trichy, however, we did most of our travelling around the city’s far flung sites by public bus, beginning with a 7 rupee trip on the No 1 bus 6 Kms north through the city to Srirangam. After our encounter with the motor bike horns on the streets of Pudicherry’s French quarter, this was revenge time. The bus’s horn sent out a deep deafening boom more suited to a fog warning for North Atlantic shipping than a city bus and we thundered through the streets scattering pedestrians, cyclist and rickshaws as we went, past the preserved steam locomotive outside the station, through the traffic fumes and under the sign which optimistically read ‘Green Trichy Clean Trichy’ and into the Bazaar District. We squeezed through streets lined with wholesale onion sellers, onions and shallots in vast quantities, white, pink-skinned and red in mounds on the street or piled in hessian sacks; there was what must have been a lorry load of dried red chillies heaped on a street corner; open fronted shops displayed coils of jute and shiny metal boxes; there were timber sellers and carpenters turning out simple tables and stools. We passed the cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes and the Rock Fort Temple and then took the bridge over the almost dry bed of the Kaveri River to the island of Srirangam and the Sri Ranganasathwamy Temple.
Sri Ranganasathwamy has the reputation as the largest temple in India and is almost a city in itself with 49 separate shrines and seven gopuram or temple gate towers leading to the inner sanctum, forbidden to non Hindus. We entered through the first, a gigantic 71 metre gopuram, ranked as Asia’s tallest temple tower and passed through lanes lined with shops, flower and religious trinket sellers and restaurants until we reached the temple proper at the fourth gopuram where we left our shoes.
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The temple is dedicated to Vishnu and large Vishnu symbols are painted on the high walls. Perhaps we are being unfair, perhaps it was the heat, or perhaps we were just templed out, but we were a little underwhelmed and didn’t give the place the attention it almost certainly deserves.
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Another day, another temple, another Puja. The Rock Fort Temple

 
  
  
 

The Rock Fort Temple, Trichy

  
 
That couldn’t be said of our impression the Jambukeswarar Temple or Tiruvanacoil which we visited the following day after our climb up the 400 plus steps of the Rock Temple, a Puja blessing en route, and its view over hazy Trichy. 

 

Through the gopuram to the Jambukeswara Temple

  
 Sri Jambukeswarar was without doubt the best we had visited in Tamil Nadu. Partly it was the approach through the two gopuram and the quiet green courtyards that separated them, partly it was the attractive play of light and shade in the colonnaded temple itself, but principally it was the sense of the temple going about its own day to day life in a way that is often missing from some of the temples that attract many tourists.

    

  

Men and women sat making flower garlands; others sat and chatted on the distinctive red and white striped steps; devotees bought the little offering candles and set them glowing in steel trays; men and women stood in groups of two or three before the shrines waiting for the priest’s blessing; a mound of hay was piled against the temple wall and, in a room off the temple itself, we could see the cows in their stalls being milked. A man with a microphone made an announcement and two others unrolled and held up to view a six yard length of saree cloth, wrapped it and repeated the process with other lengths of cloth. It may well have been part of the pre-nuptial ceremony that was taking place in the temple. 

 

The pre-nuptual ceremony

      A group of families and friends was gathered around and taking photos of a young man in white and a bashful young woman in a stunning blue and gold saree who were seated on a mat waiting to receive the priest’s blessing. Seeing our interest, the friends invited us over, made way for us to take photos and told us that the couple were due to marry on the following day and that this was part of the extensive ritual. There was nothing solemn about it. There was a lot of laughing and joking from the young men and smiling from the young husband to be but, to be truthful, the young bride seemed a little overwhelmed by it all, understandably so perhaps.

We spent the best part of two hours wandering around Sri Jambukeswarar and took away some of our best memories of Tamil Nadu. Tomorrow, back to Kerala.
The photos on the blog were taken with a mobile phone. Check out Rob’s travel and landscape photography website for images taken with a camera of travels in India and beyond at

robdougallphotography.co.uk

The Trichy Cholan Express to Thanjavur

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The passenger train to Villapuram

An hour by passenger train from Puducherry to Villaparam Junction, 10rps (10p) each, where we picked up the Trichy Express for the four hour trip south to Thanjavur, ‘rice basket of Tamil Nadu’, former capital of the great Chola Empire, location of the World Heritage designated Brihadishwara Temple and, naturally, another hot, dusty, crowded and noisy Indian city. We followed the injunction of the guide book and visited the famous temple twice. In the cool of the morning we entered through the massive Nayak gateway and the two gopuram to the vast open area within surrounded by colonnaded cloisters with their lingam shrines.

  

  
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In front is India’s largest sculpture of Nandi, Shiva’s sacred bull, and beyond it the temple itself with its majestic 61 metre high vimana, a tower adorned with a dazzling display of carvings and sculptures. It was this that fixed our attention when we returned in the evening to watch the setting sun turn its stones from umber to pink to a glowing red and, high above us, the kites circling around its decorated top.

  
The restoration of Thanjavur’s Royal Palace, built by the Nayaks in the fifteenth century and later extended by the Maratha dynasty, is a work in progress. There was a gang of lunghi clad labourers toiling away in the midday heat carrying baskets and basins full of building sand on their heads and much of the site is overgrown. A 50 rupees ticket gave access to the Mahratta Durbar Hall where the Maratha rulers gave audience in the pavilion with its murals and brightly coloured columns, the Art Gallery with its bronze sculpture and, most interesting, the library that displays some of Serfoji II’s remarkable collection. This Nineteenth Century ruler had a real passion for collecting – some 65000 books and 50000 palm leaf and paper manuscripts and looking at some of the more fascinating ones on display occupied us for some time.

 

The offering tree

 
The sign beside the half open gate proudly announces that the Sivaganga Waterpark and Gardens is a Thanjavur City Corporation enterprise, and the entrance price – 30 rupees. It’s also the location of the Sivaganga Tank, built in the 16th Century to provide water for the city, so definitely worth a look. Someone had high hopes for this place once. To mark the 1994 World Tamil Conference, motor boats offering pleasure rides on the tank were introduced and they still seem to be here, beached and abandoned on the overgrown bank of the tank.

Through the half open gate we are greeted by an eight foot fibre glass giraffe a dinosaur and a gorilla. A sorry looking red toy train sits rusting and detached from its carriages, its wheels silted up with sand, and looking as if it’s been a long time since it carried passengers on the track that runs around the water park. There is is still water in the pool at the bottom of the slides which sit drunkenly on their supports but the tiles are green with algae. Washing hangs from a line above the empty ticket office. The ‘Canteen’ is padlocked shut, the chairs and tables stacked in the dusty forecourt.

   
 Then there are the animal cages. One says ‘Pigeon’. It seems to be empty but it’s too dark to see inside. The next says ‘Rat’ and ‘Rabbit’. We can see half a dozen rabbits but no sign of a rat. In a cage that says ‘Parrot’ there are three white geese. But the park hasn’t been entirely abandoned. Bizarrely the water sprinklers are spraying an island of grass and two women are sweeping up fallen leaves. There must be a story to the park’s sad demise but we don’t know what it is.

  

Grrrr …. what have you done to my park?

    

Outside is the entrance to Schwarz’s Fort Church. Built by an 18th century Danish missionary, polyglot and sometime diplomat, it’s a place full of atmosphere; inside the plaques and tablets poignantly prompt questions about the lives these early missionaries and colonists led and the deaths they met so far from home: ‘….. aged 32, wife to the Chief Engineer ….’
  
Market Street comes alive at night, a raucous carnival of colour, light and noise. Hanging above the shops that stretch along it are flouncy girls’ dresses in garish lime green, tangerine, canary yellow, electric blue, candy pink. Music blares out from the stalls selling mobile phones. There are people crowded around the food and chai and coffee stalls, carts piled with grapes and pomegranates. A cow helps itself from a heap of shallots on a hand cart and a woman rushes to shoo it away. There are open fronted shops selling gleaming steel and copper pans, stacks of clay pots, huge sacks of rice, trays of spices and women sitting with a paltry selection of vegetables, beans and onions, spread out on a mat and dimly lit by oil lamps.
  
   
 
We leave in the morning for Tiruchchirippalli.
The photos on the blog were taken with a mobile phone. Check out Rob’s travel and landscape photography website for images taken with a camera of travels in India and beyond at

robdougallphotography.co.uk

Robdougallphotography