Category Archives: Thailand

A 36-hour detour

6 June 2014. 5pm, Changi. Finally reached the airport. It’s raining. Wolfed down a late lunch while talking to my parents on the phone. I’ve been so busy the past few weeks that I haven’t had the chance to talk to them.

There are many people in the airport. I wonder where people are travelling to.

5.35pm. Flight departs for Bangkok
Maju lah!

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7pm. Reached Bangkok Survanabhumi. Got a foot massage and then a boarding pass. Read a novella.

There are just as many people in this airport.

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1135pm. Depart for Vienna.

7 June 2014. 550am. Arrived in Vienna. The last time I was here, I was only 20 years old.

So early in the morning! What shall I do? Go to a market!
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Like most markets in the world, there was a market melee. Red-faced people, loud voices, aggressive hand gestures. For some reason, passerbys thought I understood what the quarrel was. I don’t.

This caught my eye. So much detail.

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The zombie of sleep deprivation begins to overwhelm me. Took a walk in the park in the summer sun. I begin to regret buying the two bottles of wine earlier at the market. Or maybe not. If only I have also bought some cheese…

930am. Sat in front of Schoenbrunn Palace, and drinking my second cup of coffee for the day, a melange.

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I would love to catch a summer open air concert. Alas, there isn’t one today.

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Headed over to the Leopold Museum. Screening was the video And yet there was art! which showcased how Austrian artists such as Egon Schiele, Albert Konig, Albin Eggen-Lienz dealt with their experiences of WWI in their art.

The late 19th century and early 20th century Vienna flourished with intellectuals. The exhibition showcased how these talents in art, literature and music crossed paths.

The jet lag set in. And I was in dire need of a nap. So I went to the park. Zzzzz…

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I can’t tell you how much I needed that nap.

4.30pm. At Freud’s former residence on Berggasse 19, where he stayed from the age of 35 to 82 when he left for London following Nazi Germany’s so-called annexation of Austria. He died a year later in London. The building was newly built when Freud first moved in in 1891.

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Only parts of the apartment are opened to the public: the waiting room for patients, the consultation room, his study and part of the private quarters.

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Freud and his daughter Anna.

The waiting room for Freud’s patients also saw the gathering of luminaries that formed his circle of professional network and friends in Vienna. I imagine a room full of cigar smoke and conversations.

If I were to design the living room of my home, rather than a traditional setting of tv in front of sofa, I would have a loose arrangement of a table and assorted chairs. It’s something that I have wanted to do for years: nothing too plush but definitely comfortable. The table (it will probably be a combination of several components, still working out the design in my head) is the centrepiece where people gather around to work on ideas or simply bond over a meal. The room would then, rather than a place for vegetating in front of the tv, live up to its name of a ‘living’ room.

Took the street tram. Walked around a bit more.

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Took the speedy train to the airport, thinking I was right on the dot for departure. But to find out that I have been denied boarding for being late. How this could happen when, 1) there was 30 mins before take off and 2) I already had a boarding pass, is bewildering. I am simply too tired to argue and will save the disputes for a later date.

My long detour to London will take even longer now since I will now have to spend the night in Vienna.

Ps. 48 hours later, I am now in London.

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Yi Peng & Lanna Kathina, Chiang Mai

Since I came back from Uzbekistan, I had a rather hectic two weeks at work. So I was really looking forward to our short weekend getaway to Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand. Chiang Mai isn’t a new place for us, but this time round, we wanted to catch the Lanna Yi Peng festival, which coincided with the more widely-known festival of Loi Krathong in Thailand. Yi Peng is popularly known for the spectacle of sky lanterns, which I learned later coincided with the religious ceremony Lanna Kathina – more of that in just a bit.

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We had an extra day before the Lanna Kathina. So we decided to do something interesting – mountain biking in Doi Suthep national park. Up in the highlands, deep in the forest, biking (sometimes, skidding) down the rough terrain, seemed exhilarating and mightily scary at the same time. Inevitably I crashed, had a crushed wound on the right eyebrow, left a big pool of blood in Doi Suthep, was bandaged up and sent off to the hospital. This is probably the worst crash I have ever had and I am still a little shaken. The wound was complicated and I had to be stitched up in an operating theatre. As vanity took over and I fretted over the possibility of scarring and no more eyebrow, it dawned on me that the crash could have been much worse!

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The next day, we took a song theow (a collective truck) to Mae Jo, where the Lanna Kathina was being held.

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So, what is kathina? Here’s my understanding of it:

Under the Theravadan Buddhist tradition, bhikkhus (members of the Sangha/monks) observe a period of vassa – when the bhikkus do not travel during the rainy season. The rule originated for two reasons: 1) that it is hazardous to the health of monks (who were nomadic in ancient times) if they are unable to secure shelter, bearing in mind the difficulties of travelling in ancient India, 2) to prevent monks from travelling on foot through the sodden countryside, potentially harming the living beings (e.g. crops, wildlife) that surfaced with the rain. During this period, monks will remain in their residence and devote themselves to their studies or practices together, whatever they may be: meditation, study of dhamma or teaching. During vassa, some lay Buddhists also dedicate themselves to their spiritual training and take on extra precepts, e.g. by abstaining from meat, alcohol, undertaking extra dhamma studies or meditating daily.

There are certain rules regarding monks’ robes: for example they could not ask for cloth or ask to buy some. Rather, robes were to be made from cloths that nobody else wanted, e.g. those that have been discarded, or even used as shroud for cremation. Even then, permission was needed for bhikkus to scavenge for cloths. The cloths were then to be boiled with vegetable matter such as bark, leaves and flower, which usually gives rise to the orange colour of the robes. It was a practice in which monks learned to depend on themselves,  live simply and not place burden on the lay community.

It was said that a group of thirty monks travelled with the intention of spending vassa with the Buddha. But the vassa began before they reached their destination so they stopped and found a place to stay and studied together. After the monsoon period, they hurried to their destination. But the roads were thick with mud and by the time they reached the Buddha, their robes were muddy and drenched. At the same time they could not ask for new robes. Feeling compassion for the monks, the Buddha gave them a cloth which he had received as a donation. In those days cloth was made into robes by spreading it on a hard frame called kathina. The Buddha also established a procedure for giving and receiving robes.

Today, kathina marks the end of vassa, and when lay Buddhists make offerings of robes or other necessities to the bhikkus as a community. Kathina is held within a month of the end of vassa. 

Just some weeks back, some friends from Malaysia had asked me to join them in a kathina ceremony in Taiping, but I wasn’t able to go. So I was rather intrigued when I found out that the Yi Peng festival in Thailand coincides with the Lanna Kathina, the weekend of the full moon.

In Mae Jo, the Lanna Kathina was held by the organisation Lanna Dutanga. Although we didn’t attend the robe offering ceremony, like the masses we took part in the lantern-releasing ceremony, which was preceded by a meditation session led by the venerable head monk of the Lanna Dutanga, conducted in Thai. 

I am still unsure how releasing lanterns (khom loi in Thai) is related to Buddhism, or kathina. Influences of Thai culture perhaps. In fact, some people say that sky lanterns originate from China. The popular symbolism is appealing: make your wishes as you set off the lantern and for good luck. The inner child also awakens with an act as simple as letting go of something that floats into the air. Undoubtedly, the festival is a spectacle to behold, almost magical even. But at the same time, I wonder about the impact of a great number of people gathering in one place (someone estimated 60,000 although my guess is about 20,000). Perhaps the festival has attracted more people than it had ever intended because clearly the field where the festival was held and the exits are unable to sustain the crowd, a number of which are tourists like us. Now that I know what was one of the reasons for vassa – to prevent the monks (then) from trampling on plants during the rainy season – I am beginning to have rather mixed feelings about the lantern-releasing festival.

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In Bangkok with Kenny Barron

I was in Bangkok on an office retreat. The trip did not start out well: I had a sore throat and the sight-seeing on the day before – while interesting – ended with a bad headache for me. The next morning, I went with a couple of others to MBK centre. But after wandering around for 10 minutes I was completely bored by the endless rows of homogeneous substandard products. Decided once and for all to get out of the place and crossed the overhead walkway at the busiest section of downtown Bangkok. From there I spotted the Bangkok Art and Cultural Centre – a contemporary arts museum – and stumbled on to the Sawasdee Jazz Festival!

The Kenny Barron Trio gave a concert the night before which unfortunately I missed. Nonetheless was forfuitous enough to walk into the masterclass session – serendipitous encounters are what make travelling so fun. He said a few things which quite resonated with me e.g. about how the best performance is one that touches people. The audience (mostly Thai jazz musicians or music students) were not shy with questions: “How do you practice?” “When I was younger I take a piece and play it really really fast.” Barron says one of his favourite jazz pianists is Art Tatum and then went on to give us a treat with his interpretation.

The jazz festival was free for the public. The rest of the day was filled with hour-long mini concerts, mostly performed by local jazz ensembles. And that’s quite a long list of ensembles. Even though not all of them were very good I reckon that there’s a much more vibrant home-grown live jazz music scene here in Bangkok than in Singapore.


Bangkok – Wat Arun

I can’t remember whether I have actually stepped foot onto Wat Arun. But on this trip to Bangkok, after donning a pair of jeans in spite of the humidity and taking the 10 cents boat ride across the very full Chao Phraya river in the month of October, the least we could do is to climb up the Wat.

River crossing to Wat Arun

Narrow, high stairs up to the top

Bangkok’s weather was pretty much like this the whole time I was there over the weekend: overcast, somewhat threatening to rain at very turn of the moment.

On Wat Arun

 

Wading (sort of) in the Venice of the East

Just came back from Bangkok. I had planned to go Ayutthaya and Lopburi to test out my new cameras but was advised against it. Even prior to the trip there were news reports in Singapore about floods in Thailand, but I was skeptical. Friendly warnings from friends & colleagues were simply not enough to put me off. That is, until I reached Bangkok and saw a local newspaper headlines (which I completely cannot read) above a picture of a statue of a giant Buddha reclined in a bath of water. It was probably a stock photo, but that was enough for me to back off from the side-trips.

The water levels were (and according to reports, still are) really testing the limits of Bangkok’s rivers and canals. While exploring the streets of Bangkok on an overcast day, we stumbled upon Tha Tian Pier, where people catch the boat to Wat Arun. I boarded the boat gingerly as the teh-tarik colour river waters sloshed around with mildly threatening rigour against the embankment. At the pier, some tourists seemed oblivious to the rising water levels. A bit like me feeling ignorantly awesome and gung-ho about going to Ayutthaya & Lopburi before.

I reckon the stilts of the pier must have been visible at some point.

At Tha Tien pier, Bangkok. 7 Oct 2011

Water seeping into souvenir shop at Tha Tien pier

Postcards from Krabi

For a few days too brief, PL and I were transported to paradise on earth.

Krabi is famous for the lovely islands dotted off the south-western coast of Thailand in the Andaman sea. Yes, the Andaman sea. In case memory fails, the Andaman was the primary site of the 2004 Tsunami, with tsunami waves demolishing the famous Phi Phi Don island off Krabi. Today, it has been swiftly rebuilt and re-filled with merrymakers. But signs like these dot the narrow bi-concaved bay on the island.

Seen on Phi Phi Don

This Bodhi tree tied with ribbons serve as a memorial of the tragedy.

On Phi Phi Don

And yet, the surrounding islands are a vision of hidden paradise that gently charms even the most weary traveller. When PL asked me how I would describe the scenery in Chinese, I immediately thought of 碧水蓝天 (bi shui  lan tian) – which literally means “turquoise waters blue sky”. Because that’s exactly what it looks like.

Above: At Maya Beach, on Phi Phi Ley. Made famous by the movie “The Beach”, which was how I first heard of Krabi from years ago. The guide says that the Thais owe the spike in tourism to Hollywood. But we say, thank you – Thailand – for the privilege of visiting this beauty!

Island-hopping was done via speedboats or long tail boats, like the one above.

Karst stone cliffs dot the Thai Andaman coast, rising out of shimmering emerald waters that serve as a wonderful cool oasis for a splash right off the boat under the gleaming sun.

On top of it all, we were blessed with wonderful weather on the days we went island-hopping, in spite of forecast of rain. Indeed, there are a lot of things to be thankful for.

And after several days of sun, beach, swimming & snorkelling in these clear waters, having a close encounter with a whale shark (a rare sight) and riding an elephant, we headed down to Krabi Town for the weekend night market. This isn’t my first time to Southern Thailand,  but I had forgotten how yummy the food is.

Above: Thai version of nasi kerabu, a yummy concoction of rice mixed with a variety of vegetables & salad drizzled with exquisite sauce that is sweet, sour & hot all at once. Traditionally, the blue-coloured rice is naturally dyed using bunga telang or blue pea flower. Such cuisine is commonly found in south Thailand and the north-east coast of Peninsula Malaysia (where it is commonly called nasi kerabu).

And how can we forget the lovely sunsets on Klong Muang beach on mainland.

 

This trip reminded me of my first visit about 10 years ago to pristine islands: the Perhentian and Redang islands off the east coast of Peninsula Malaysia. There and then, I remembered being stunned at how the sea in Malaysia – instead of some murky colour that is often the consequence of mankind’s mistreatment – can actually be blue & crystal clear. Pictures such as those in the National Geographic are not fable after all. Years on, after having travelled across continents and waded in oceans both near and far, I get questions on whether do I ever tire of travelling. And miss out these sceneries and nature’s marvels? No way.