Thursday, 30 September 2010

Songkran in Bangkok

Songkran is the festival celebrated at Thai New Year, which is in mid April (dependant on the Lunar cycle).
The festival has its origins in Thailand’s agricultural heartland, when thanks was given each year for the water which helps to grow the rice that the people survive on.

These days it is a 4 day holiday, celebrated on the streets by people dousing each other with buckets of freezing cold water and throwing a flour/water paste at you. The more “sophisticated” have Supersoaker water pistols and drive around towns and cities in their pick-up trucks spraying one another.

At its best, this is a fantastically fun festival and the locals are more than happy for foreigners to take part. If you are prepared to get soaked on these days (ie: not wearing your finest suit and carrying your expensive laptop!) and know the score it’s great fun. If you take it in the wrong spirit then probably best to avoid Thailand during Songkran, or stay indoors!
At its worst, Songkran can bring out the worst in people. As with the standard New Year, copious amounts of alcohol are consumed, this combined with copious amounts of water being thrown at people means a spike in road traffic accidents. In particular motorcycle accidents soar during this festival.
As I always advise to anyone visiting Thailand, common sense should always prevail, don’t leave that at home just because you’re on holiday.

I have included below a few pictures of a typical Bangkok Songkran scene.

Friday, 24 September 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!

You can see more photos on my website, linked below.

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Friendly Vientiane

As capital cities go, Vientiane has to be about the most friendly, relaxed and slow paced one that I’ve ever visited. It is small in city terms and I loved it. I only visited for a few days on my way elsewhere, and to be honest three days is probably more than enough to visit the city’s few sights and to soak up the atmosphere and sample the fine food.

The main sight, towards the north-east of the city is Vat That Luang, a shimmering golden temple. Although the centre of the main building is blocked off, there’s still plenty to see around the temple grounds, and plenty of photo opportunities.

Next on the list, in “downtown” is Patuxay. This is the Laotian version of Paris’s Arc de Triomphe. Equally as impressive and with some uniquely South East Asian finishing touches. Like it’s French cousin, it is situated in a huge traffic island. You can climb to the top to get some impressive panoramas.

There are many smaller temples dotted around the city, the best of which is the beautifully maintained Haw Pha Kaew. If you catch this temple on a clear, sunny day (which is often in Vientiane!) you’ll come away with some great photos. This temple is a former home of Thailand’s Emerald Buddha.

Also well worth a visit, and just across the road is Wat Si Saket, the home of a thousand (or so!) Buddhas. In the cloister walls, there are hundreds of tiny recesses each of which house tiny Buddha statues. There is also a row of around 300 larger seated Buddha’s.

Khua Din market is the big draw for shoppers, catering to local culinary tastes as well as selling clothing and all the usual tourist tat.

I loved Vientiane, and if you go there not expecting a lot, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Some photos will follow shortly, in the meantime you can check photos on my website,

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Interesting stops along the Chao Phraya River

Cruising along the Chao Phraya is one of the best ways to see Bangkok, it gives you a unique perspective of riverside life and the difference between the two sides of Bangkok, new and old. It also offers a welcome blast of air in a humid city and certainly beats being stuck in traffic!

Typcial river scene

You can access some of Bangkok’s major sights from the river as well as several smaller ones. If you are so inclined you can happily spend a day hopping on and off, with fares starting at just a few baht. Here’s a guide of what to expect nearby each of the piers along the main route.

Firstly a guide to the different services available:

Local line – no flag. This service stops at every single pier but only operates in the rush hours.

Orange flag – The most popular boats for the tourist stops, calling at most piers and all the major ones. Boats are roughly every 10-20 minutes depending on the time of day.

Yellow flag and Green and Yellow flag – Express service in rush hours only stopping at a few piers.

These days the Orange flag boat operates a flat fare policy of 13 baht per trip.

Sathorn – The busiest pier along the route due to its connection with the Skytrain at Saphan Taksin station. You can also charter boats from this pier.

Oriental – Connection with the world famous Oriental Hotel, dress smartly and they might just let you in for dinner!

Si Phraya – River City shopping centre, which is famous for its arts and antiques shops. Many river cruises depart from here.

Ratchavongse – Gateway into Chinatown. This area is a fascinating sprawl of narrow roads and alleys, Chinese temples, great food and garish gold shops.

Memorial Bridge – Pak Klong wet market, if you’re into local markets. The Old Siam shopping centre and Sampeng Lane offer an olde-world shopping experience.

An always over looked temple, Wat Pichai Yathikaram is a must for temple buffs. It is rarely visited by tourists and if you like the atmosphere of a grand building in decay, pay this place a visit.

Rajinee – Take a cross river ferry to Wat Arun, an iconic Bangkok landmark.

Wat arun seen from the river

Tha Tien – Gives you easy access to the Grand Palace/Wat Phra Kaew and Wat Pho. Arguably Bangkok’s two biggest sights.

Wat Phra Kaew

Wat Pho

Tha Chang – Also used to access the Grand Palace and Wat Pho.

Wang Lang – The first stop on the other side of the river. Most famous for the grisly forensic museum at Siriraj hospital.

Pra Arthit – Not on the main routes but I have included it anyway as it isn’t so far from the infamous Khao San Road, backpacker ghetto. Disembark at Phra Pinklao Bridge and cross over the river.

Also worth a look is the Phra Sumane Fort and some nice markets in the area.

Phra Pinklao Bridge – See above. Also it is the nearest stop to the Royal Barge Museum.

From this point on you’re starting to go out of the main city centre area so will only highlight a few points of interest, not every pier is included from now on.

Thewes – Is the closest pier to the historic Dusit area, containing Dusit Zoo, Vimanmek Mansion, Wat Benjamabophit, Wat Indrawihan and Chitrlada Palace. Although it’s a long walk, so taxi may be the better option.

Standing Buddha at Wat Indrawihan

Wat Poramai – A fair way up the river, this stop gets you onto the fascinating manmade island of Ko Kred. This is like stepping into the past, the island is famous for its earthenware goods.

Nonthaburi – The end of the line, famous only for the nearby notorious Klong Prem prison. Minibuses run here from the pier.

South East Asia photos on my website,

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Thursday, 2 September 2010

Siam Ocean World

Siam Ocean World is Bangkok’s new aquarium located in the basement of the Siam Paragon Shopping Centre. Although by Bangkok standards it’s not a cheap attraction it’s certainly a good way to keep the kids entertained for a couple of hours, longer if you take in some of the shows.

There were several parties of well-to-do looking school kids when we visited but the aquarium is large enough to find a quiet (ish) corner in.

It is everything you’d expect from a modern aquarium, a wide variety of sea life contained in distinct areas, low lighting for deep sea creatures, open tanks for “pettable” marine life and so forth. And of course be prepared for the strategically sited gift shop and the end of your route!

To get there the easiest way is to take a skytrain to Siam station and follow the signs.

Please forgive the rather dubious quality of the photos, I’m no photography expert and taking clear pictures in dark light is not my forte!