Friday, 18 June 2010

Vietnam – a short visit

I had the opportunity to visit Vietnam for three days and just couldn’t pass it up, having read and heard so many positive things about it. I knew three wouldn’t be nearly enough to do any kind of justice to the place, but it was better than nothing.

Basically, while based in Thailand I won a prize for a short holiday, hotel stay, guided tour etc. We were based in Ho Chi Minh City and followed what I presume is a standard tourist itinerary. Even doing this gives you a great insight into this fascinating country.

We had a look around what used to be called the “American War Crimes Museum” and did a walking tour around some of the city’s famous monuments like the Opera House, markets and Chinese temples.

The thing that really struck me about the city initially was the volume of motorcycle traffic and lack of traffic lights and pedestrian crossings. On the face of it the city is chaotic, actually there’s a kid of order to it all. Once you get past the initial culture shock, you can appreciate the diverse, historical nature of the city. Asian shop houses intermingle with French style architecture and a strong communist Chinese influence.

The food here is really fresh, often chickens and ducks are kept round the back of restaurants and killed to order. Vietnamese cuisine is fantastic and very subtle. I loved eating out in the city, so many choices. And if you tire of Asian food, of course here in Vietnam you can always pick up a fresh baguette!

After a day in the city, we had two day trips out to the countryside. One day was spent along the Mekong Delta, visiting local communities and factories.

The other day was a visit to the famous Cu Chi tunnels, were Viet Cong and civilians lived during the French occupation and the Vietnam War. This was another fascinating day, some of the tunnels have been widened to allow for visitors to crawl in! Most of the tunnels are so small, only Vietnamese people could fit in!

Vietnam is a really lively place, packed full of history and diversity. Of course its recent history is very sad, and this is reason enough to visit, to understand what happened here and ensure it doesn’t happen again.

You’ll love Vietnam!

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Nottingham Church (Rock) Cemetery


This little gem is a must see, not just for admirers of cemeteries, but also because it gives you a unique insight into Nottingham’s history, over ground and underground.

I enjoy wandering around cemeteries, not because of some morbid fascination with death, but because they can often be oases of calm and peace in busy cities. They are incredibly atmospheric places and a showcase of some fine architecture, monuments and stonemasonry. The Rock Cemetery is no different, having some fine examples of elaborate Victorian and Georgian headstones and tombs.

Due to its situation, on the northern perimeter of the main city centre, it is little visited, completely deserted when I went. It is located on the site of an old sand mine, something Nottingham is famous for. The cemetery is laid out taking on the humps, hollows and terraces left by the mining. The most obvious example of this is St Ann’s Valley, the deepest point of the cemetery that you descend into on a concrete ramp around one edge. Steep sandstone cliffs circle this hollow, set into which are catacombs and a now gated-off tunnel leading back up to the main cemetery. Also located in St Ann’s Valley are the mass graves of paupers, buried in the early 1900’s. there are around 15-20 bodies in each of these mass graves, marked simply by large slabs laid into the ground, with the name and age of those beneath. Many of these mass graves are of children only days old.

I spent a good half an hour reading the names on these slabs and could have spent many hours in this area alone. But as I was on my way to a meeting at a nearby hotel at this point I had to make my way out.

Upon entering the cemetery through the main entrance on the corner of Mansfield Road and Forest Road East you can either head to the left along the main upper terrace, with orderly rows of headstones or straight ahead and down a twisting path into another interesting area. Here remain some sandstone cliffs with plaques and ashes inlaid into them (some plaques long since vanished and the holes bricked over). There are a couple of small caves at the bottom of this small pit which are gated and now appear to just contain broken fragments of headstones and grave decorations. This area has some nice grassed terraces which you can climb onto, these contain some of the most ornate and over the top graves. A concrete path takes you back up towards the main upper terrace and it is from here that notice the aforementioned St Ann’s Valley straight ahead and you can see over the walls to The Forest recreation ground.

If you take a left here, somewhere along one of the paths (I didn’t have time to look properly) is the sight of the former chapel, long since demolished. One of Nottingham’s public execution gallows also once stood in the cemetery.

Upon reading about the cemetery I became aware of a network of tunnels that expand under this area of town and am now trying to find out how I can gain access to those. Nottingham is famous for its caves and tunnels, but only a small fragment of these are open to the public for guided tours.

Admittedly not many people visit a place with the intention of visiting a cemetery, but they can so often give you a window to a city’s past and always prove to be interesting and relaxing places. Church (Rock) cemetery certainly fits that bill and its unique landscape gives it an extra dimension. Well worth a visit for anyone stopping by in Nottingham or for Nottingham resident’s who have always wanted to visit, like I did!

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Bangkok temples

Bangkok is famous for many things, and one of those things is its glittering temples. I will cover many temples in this blog, some well known, and others not so. Also I try and provide address details and a How to Get There wherever I can. If temples are your thing, then you need never be short of a place to visit in Bangkok! You can visit my website, for pictures of many of these temples.

Wat Phra Kaew

Any list of temples in Bangkok has to begin, quite rightly with Wat Phra Kaew, the capital’s number one tourist attraction. Housed in the Grand Palace complex, it is a fantastic collection of buildings, spires and roofs glittering in the bright sunlight. It also hosts the country’s most revered Buddha image, the Emerald Buddha, which in itself is quite small but has a history. Also only the King of Thailand changes the Emerald Buddha’s attire at the turn of each season, such is the reverence in which it is held.

If you have the time, a visit here is a must. Try to get there early before the crowds build up (it does get incredibly busy) and before it gets too hot. Beware of the touts outside who’ll tell you it’s closed for a public holiday, research Touts and scams in Bangkok before you leave home. And finally make sure you’re properly dressed, this goes for any temple. Acceptable attire is trousers or a long skirt, and a t-shirt that covers your shoulders.

Location – The main entrance is off Thanon Na Phra Lan, most easily accessed from Tha Chang river express pier. Many of the river express boats stop off here.

Wat Pho

Probably Bangkok’s second most famous temple, located just a short walk down the road from Wat Phra Kaew.

It is most famous for two things, the world renowned Institute of Thai Massage and the massive and hugely impressive Reclining Buddha. While you’re here both are definitely worth a look in, but I find that the grounds of Wat Pho are surprisingly peaceful once you get away from the main entrance and the building that houses the Reclining Buddha. I like to stop off here to relax sometimes; you can usually find a quiet spot to yourself to chill out for a bit.

The same warning about touts as above also applies here.

Wat Arun

This is an instantly recognisable Bangkok landmark. Located just a short ferry hop away on the other side of the river to Wat Pho. Catch a cross river ferry at Tha Tien and it drops you right outside.

It is recognisable because of its towering “prang” a central spire surrounded by smaller spires. You can climb up to a certain level on the main prang and this gives you great views back across the river to the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew. The temple grounds are reasonably interesting, but the most famous shot of Wat Arun is probably from back on the Wat Pho side of the river, at sunset. Capture it if you can!

Wat Saket - The Golden Mount

Literally a temple on top of a hill. This was once Bangkok’s highest point and offers great panoramic views around the city. It’s a fairly easy climb up some broad stairs to the top of the mount and there are some interesting nooks and crannies at the top.

It is sandwiched between Thanon Worachak and Thanon Boriphat, the most interesting way to reach it is by boat along the Saen Saeb canal, stopping off at Fan Fha pier, near to the Democracy Monument.

Wat Benjamabophit

Commonly referred to as Wat Benja or the Marble Temple, this is a stunning temple and with a difference. As the name suggests, it is heavily laid with Italian marble, which gives this temple that extra gleam in the midday sun, as if it were needed! If you know how to adjust your camera to the light conditions, you can get some great shots here.

Located a short taxi ride away from Ratchthewi skytrain station, along Si Ayuthaya Road, it can also be combined with the nearby Chitrlada Palace, Vimanmek Mansion and Dusit Zoo.

Wat Indrawihan

This temple is made famous for two reasons, one being that it is a highlight of the tuk tuk touts “grand tour” of Bangkok, before they drop you off at a nearby tailors or gem shop. The other reason is that it’s home to an imposingly tall standing Buddha, which is worth making the trip alone.

Located just down the road from Wat Benja, the easiest way to get there is by river express boat to Rama VIII pier.

Wat Pathum Wanaram Ratchaworawihan

This temple is a bit of a wildcard on my list, because it’s not particularly outstanding in itself. However it’s the location that fascinates me. It is situated somewhat uncomfortably between the monolithic shopping centres of Siam Paragon and Central World Plaza

I find it to be a great oasis of peace and calm in the chaos of downtown Bangkok. Because there is so much surrounding it, I find I can often have the place completely to myself. You can also get some great juxtaposing photos of the old and the new from the grounds of this temple.

Wat Pariwas

This final temple on my list is even more of a wildcard, or should that be red card?! Famous because it has an image of David Beckham in its main altar, this temple tips a nod toward modernism to try and attract the younger generation. And as a resident of the temple said “Football is a modern religion”. How very true!

A bit more difficult to find, it is located on the southern bow of Rama III road, and only really accessible by taxi.

There are countless other temples that I haven’t managed to visit, probably the most famous being Wat Suthat, home of the Giant Swing and Wat Traimit which houses the biggest gold Buddha in the country. Feel free to get in touch if you want any further advice on visiting temples in Bangkok.

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Thai bureaucracy and helping somebody get divorced

Probably not something you’d normally encounter on a 3 week trip to Thailand! My wife and I (and family) visit Thailand every year, my wife is Thai and we visit her family in Bangkok. This year she had to go to the local district office to renew her ID card… my God! If you think the country you live in is bureaucratic….the Thais do it with style (and a tasteful brown, military style uniform).

What should be a simple process of fill a form in, pay your fee, have a photo taken and wait for it to be printed takes about 2 – 3 hours depending how busy they are! You have to visit about 8 different desks and different people, sitting down to join a new queue each time you progress past one more desk.

Just as we were at the final desk, the end was in sight…..a Thai lady and her American husband approached my wife asking her to be a translator during their official divorce proceedings! Apparently in Thailand, any couples wishing to divorce of which one partner is a foreigner, must be accompanied by an independent translator. So, back to desk number one we went while we waited for the soon to be divorced couple to jump through various hoops, my wife translating!

Meanwhile I have the arduous task of entertaining a little girl for another 2 hours, not an easy task in a Bangkok district office! In the end I got her an ID card application form to scribble on.

A tip to all visitors to Thailand, avoid the bureaucracy wherever you can, be it district offices, immigration departments etc!

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Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Bangkok - One for the kids

Bangkok always seemed to me a bit of a paradox when it comes to kids. Sure Thai people are, on the whole, very friendly and love kids. Walking around anywhere in Bangkok, on the street or in a shopping centre your child will always attract lots of attention and coo-cooing. However to take a look at Bangkok as a city, it always struck me as being incredibly child unfriendly.

Poorly maintained, narrow and congested pavements make pushing a pushchair near impossible. A lack of lifts and a lot of stairs make life even more difficult. The traffic is always bad which makes crossing the street at ground level always a risky task! And I wasn’t really aware of many child friendly activities as they’re all fairly well hidden.

Before my latest trip to Thailand I found myself thinking, what will I do with our daughter who is now at the age where she needs constant entertaining? So I did some research, asked around and came up with the following list. These places are fairly diverse and well spread around town, so should give your kids something to do wherever you’re staying.

Children’s Discovery Museum – Rotfai Gardens, Chatuchak Park

Located just across the road from the top entrance to Chatuchak Weekend Market and opposite Chatuchak Park, this place is very easily accessed by Skytrain (Mo Chit) or underground (Chatuchak). Ideal for children from the age of about 4 upwards, it has lots of interactive exhibits in various themed zones. There’s a science zone, featuring amongst other things a giant bubble maker which your child can stand inside! There’s also a Global Warming zone, Nature zone, outdoor play areas and best of all cake decorating! Although older children will definitely get more out of it, there is also plenty to occupy toddlers as well.

Yoyoland – Seacon Square

This place is a little bit more out of the way; to travel there you’d need to take a Skytrain to the end of the Sukhumvit line at On Nut, then a taxi onto Srinagarindra Road. But if you can make it, it’s well worth a day or half a day out. This is basically a small theme park in Seacon Square shopping centre, open from 11 each day. It gets busy at weekends, but never so bad that you shouldn’t consider going. We never queued more than 5 minutes for any rides. There are carousels, a train track, ferris wheel, racing cars, ghost train, log flume, soft play, computer games and more. Your little one will love this place!

Funarium – Rama IV Road

Located just off Rama IV Road, you can access this place with a combination of Skytrain (to Phrom Pong) and taxi or a bus. Funarium is a giant indoor soft play centre, with giant climbing frames, roller skating area, small football/basketball pitch, soft play for babies and an upstairs arts and crafts area. Your kids will spend hours here and (fingers crossed!) be shattered by the end!

Khao Kheow Open Zoo – Chonburi Province

This is not in Bangkok, but Chonburi province, about an hour or two from Bangkok depending on traffic. So you’d either need to hire a car or book onto a day tour. But if your child likes zoos, this place is streets ahead of Dusit Zoo in Bangkok. The animals are kept in open enclosures and seem to be reasonably well cared for. There are opportunities to feed some animals and elephant rides are available for an extra fee. Another great day out, if you fancy escaping Bangkok for a while!

Safari World – Minburi (North Eastern edge of Bangkok)

This is another drive through zoo, along similar lines to Khao Kheow and again you’d really need to book on a day tour to access it. See my website for pictures,

Shopping centres around Bangkok

You will find that a lot of shopping centres around Bangkok have some kind of kids play area (usually on the top floor). They all have a combination of cinema, bowling, ice skating and child friendly restaurants as well.

Siam Paragon shopping centre – Aquarium and Department Store toy section

As much as I personally don’t like the place, Siam Paragon has a lot to offer kids! There is a somewhat overpriced aquarium in the basement. That said, it does offer a great array of sea life and your kids will love it.

Also, the toy section of the Paragon department store is great free entertainment for your little one (if you can handle the nagging to buy things!) They have a lot of toys laid out that your little one is welcome to play with, as well as a soft play area and some small sit on rides and computer games.

There are other activities that we didn’t get around to this time, such as the Butterfly Garden (near to the Discovery Museum), hire a pedal boat on the lake in Lumpini Park or even just a ride around on the Skytrain!

This is just a small selection of some child friendly activities that are available in Bangkok. Like everything in Bangkok, there is so much more available than you might think, you just need to scratch beneath the surface and do a little research beforehand. Of course you can always ask a local for some recommendations, they’re always happy to help!

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A Bangkok oasis

Bangkok is often criticised for its lack of green space, fairly so. It has one of the lowest ratios of green space per person of any major city in the world. Plans are afoot to change all of that, the current governor has said that he plans to create five more public terms during his term. I don’t know when or where this is going to happen, I haven’t seen any specific plans.

But in the meantime, there are still a handful of parks around the city you can enjoy. The most visited and centrally located is Lumpini Park, which is a great facility for sure. But, personally I prefer Chatuchak Park (sp. Jatujak Park) which is further north in the city, adjacent to the Weekend Market. It is generally a lot quieter than Lumpini and seems to be better looked after. It’s a great way to relax after a stint of shopping in the market and has some beautiful plant life and the odd monitor lizard!

If you’re visiting that neck of the woods, this park, often overlooked, is well worth a visit.

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Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Bus lanes in Bangkok, whatever next?!

In Bangkok the car is king. The bigger the car the better. Sure there are motorbikes and some people do use the bus/skytrain etc. But on the whole, if you can travel by car in Bangkok then that’s exactly what you do.

Which is why I’ll be interested in the new bus lanes in one part of Bangkok (I can assure you it’s not something I’d normally take much notice of!)

The one that’s been opened (I believe more are planned) runs between Ratchadapisek Road (the Rama III expressway) and Sathorn road, just opposite Chong Nonsi skytrain station. There is a dedicated bus lane on the far right of the 4 lane roads, in each direction. The bus basically does a U-turn at either end and goes back again. My first thought was that car drivers, in true Thai style would use the bus lane regardless, but it seems that this has been thought of. There are green and white kerb stones to block access to cars, although this does make the bus lane rather tight, especially on the U-turns! And there are places where cars can still get into the bus lane, it remains to be seen how this works out.

The bus stops are enclosed and air conditioned as are the new buses which just run this route all day. For the first few months it is free, then there will be a 10 baht flat fare, after this trial period the fare will be distance based, between 12-20 baht.
One problem of buses in Bangkok is that, like any car they are always subject to the traffic jams. And if you’re on a non air conditioned bus with its windows open this can be pretty unpleasant. So I guess one advantage of this system is that there are no traffic jams, however as it covers such a small distance I doubt this will persuade too many people to switch from their car.

I hope that I’m wrong, but I fear that this is a gimmick or token effort to promote the use of public transport. Like so many things in Thailand, it seems to have been done in isolation without thinking properly how it can link up to other projects (ie: the “links” between skytrain and underground stations that were only installed after the underground had opened and are totally inadequate).

However, if the project is to succeed then it needs a city wide network of joined up bus lanes, not just a few random ones scattered here and there. Maybe one day there’ll be a ticket that you can use on buses, skytrains and the underground as is the case in many European countries, instead of having to pay separately for each journey and in cash. However as all the systems are operated by different companies, there is too much mistrust when it comes to dividing up the money.

Anyway, this is at least a positive gesture and I do hope that it succeeds and expands, we’ll see!

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