A Travellerspoint blog

Wat Phra Kaeow

sunny 29 °C
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I have passed through Bangkok four times now. I love the place. It has a great variety of districts: the backpacker haven of Khao San Road; the splendour of Rattanakosin; the air-conditioned shopping paradise near Siam Square; the bustling insanity of Chinatown. And that is not to mention places that are simply conventionally Thai, like Thonburi. I love the fact that, like London, the river is at its heart and the most convenient way to get around is usually by ferry.

The most interesting tourist location is the Grand Palace. It is still used for royal occasions, but the royal family actually live in Dusit. Within the enormous grounds – the perimeter is over a mile in length - is the Wat Phra Kaeow, which houses the holiest Buddha in the land. Take the Wat Phra Kaeow and the Grand Palace, Wat Po and Wat Arun and you have a trinity of beautiful Thai temples.

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I was surprised to find that they were not on the UNESCO World Heritage List. In my view they are far more impressive than, say, George Town and Melaka.

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There are 878 sites on the UNESCO list, skewed considerably towards Europe. Greece has about 20, the UK has 27 (I’ve been to 11 or 12), the USA a surprisingly low 20, Italy 42 (I’ve been to 13).

I have not deliberately collected them, but have nevertheless visited 12 of the 22 in the region.

In Indonesia (out of 7):
• Borobudur
• Komodo National Park
• Prambanan

Malaysia (out of 3)
• Kinabalu National Park
• Historic Cities of the Straits of Malacca

Thailand (out of 5)
• Ayutthaya
• Sukhothai

Laos (out of 2)
• Luang Prabang

Vietnam (out of 5)
• Hạ Long Bay
• Huế
• Hội An
• Mỹ Sơn.

Wat Phra Kaeow was built towards the end of the eighteenth century. The capital of southern Thailand had been in Ayutthaya, to the north of Bangkok. In 1766 the Burmese army besieged the place, and after heroic but doomed resistance, the city fell in 1767. The Burmese sacked it conscientiously. The king escaped but is said to have starved to death ten days later, and that was the end of the Ayutthayan dynasty. One of the generals, though, Taksin, had seen the writing on the wall beforehand, sneaked out of the city with a few friends and headed for Chanthaburi, on the coast near Cambodia. From there he regrouped, convoked an army and evicted the Burmese, for good, out of the whole of Siam including the north. Naturally, he became a king, and he put one of his mates on the throne of the northern kingdom of Lan Na, based in Chiang Mai, which became a client kingdom. Taksin had his capital in Thonburi, in Bangkok but on the west bank of the river.

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Over the years Taksin became more and more paranoid and was overtaken by delusions of grandeur, even divinity. Once he said “we are a grandmother” there was a coup. It is a great sin to spill royal blood, so he was tied up in a bag and humanely clubbed to death instead. Or someone was; there are rumours that the understudy got to play Taksin for the day. The throne was handed to another of the heroes of 1767, General Chakri. He founded the dynasty that exists today, and is now usually known as Rama I. (Thailand has inherited a dilute version of the Khmer/Cham idea of devaraja, the divinity of the king. Calling yourself after an avatar of a god helps.) The current king is Rama IX.

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It was Rama I who moved the capital to Rattanakosin, on the east bank. Being in effect an island between a river and a canal, it was more defensible. Naturally, he had to build a palace, administrative quarters and a temple. The palace complex was built from 1782 onwards.

The Emerald Buddha was discovered in Chiang Rai, almost on the border with Laos and Burma, in 1434. It was covered in plaster, and it was only when some plaster fell off after an accident that the abbot realised what was inside: a little emerald Buddha. Actually, it isn’t emerald; it is jadeite, one of the two types of jade (the other being nephrite).

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The image was taken to Lamphang, in north Thailand, at the insistence of the elephant supposed to be carrying the image to Chiang Mai. It was kept there for thirty years and was eventually taken to Chiang Mai, where it was enshrined in the Wat Chedi Luang for eighty years. In the sixteenth century there was a gap in succession, and an unknown German prince was invited over to be king. (Actually a Lao prince called Setthathirath.) He did not spend very long in Chiang Mai before succeeding to his father’s throne and taking the Emerald Buddha to Luang Prabang with him.

Rama I managed to get the Emerald Buddha back from Vientiane in 1778 – in Bush style, by conquering Laos - and he needed to build a temple to house it. So he ordered the construction of a temple, in good Ayutthayan style naturally, and this is the Wat Phra Kaeow. Indeed, the architecture of Rattanakosin is a faithful copy of Ayutthayan style.

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The wat complex is guarded by yakshas.

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The bot is surrounded by hundreds of garudas holding nagas.

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The Emerald Buddha sits on a multi-tiered wooden throne nine metres high. His golden clothes are ceremoniously changed by the king or a representative three times a year: for the wet season, the dry season and the cold season. It is now the cold season and the Buddha is well wrapped up. (The term 'cool season' is relative, since the average daily maximum temperature is only three degrees or so below that during the hot season, but the difference is perceptible, particularly at night. I have been waking up feeling chilly.)

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Walk or float anywhere around Rattanakosin and the spires of Wat Phra Kaeow dominate the skyline. The most visible spires are those of the three buildings of the upper terrace, next to the bot that houses the Emerald Buddha.

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The golden spike on the upper terrace is the Phra Si Rattana Chedi, built by Rama IV. (Phra, as far as I can tell, means, holy, and prefixes the names of all sorts of people, buildings and statues.) It is a direct copy of a wat in Ayutthaya (I forget which), and, being a chedi, houses holy relics of the Buddha, in this case a fragment of the holy sternum. Judging by the number of stupas, he possessed a remarkable anatomy.

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In the middle is a square syringe called a Mondop. Built by Rama I, it houses the Tripitaka, the Buddhist scriptures. It is never open.

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The third large building on the upper terrace is the Royal Pantheon. It looks like a Thai bot with a Khmer prang stuck on top of it. Inside the Pantheon are exactly life-sized statues of the kings of the Chakri dynasty, but it is seldom open.

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Visible from the upper terrace is a line of nine porcelain prangs. Here are three.

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One of the smaller chedis is very photogenic, being surrounded by demon and monkey caryatids.

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The oldest buildings in the palace complex are the Dusit Maha Prasat throne hall and the Phra Maha Monthian Audience Hall.

The Dusit Maha Prasat is an audience hall, built in 1790. It houses the original throne, and is used for lying in state. The body is embalmed and may have to wait in the hall for a year or two before being cremated on a special day. The king’s older sister was cremated recently nearly a year after her death.

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The Phra Maha Monthian, built in 1785, was the king’s residential complex. There is an audience hall at the front, where the king gives his birthday speech. The king has to spend the first night after his coronation in this palace.

Between the two building complexes is a newer building, the Chakri Maha Prasat, known to Thais as the farang in a Thai hat. It was built in 1882 under the great Chulalongkorn, Rama V. Chulalongkorn had been educated in a western tradition – his father, Mongkut, was the king of the entirely unhistorical The King and I, still banned in Thailand - and was doing his best to retain his country’s independence while taking what he could of western technology, particularly in the fields of medicine and warfare. He wanted a neoclassical building and retained an English architect, but other members of his family demurred. They compromised and added a Thai roof.

On duty at the front are a pair of guards, unsmiling and immobile like those at St James's. Except a bit shorter.

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It used to be the site of the elephant stables and there are statues where the tethering posts used to be.

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The first time I visited, I did not manage to see much of the palace buildings, as it came on to pour tropically.

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Rama I, who began the building of the palace, also took the Ramayana and turned it into an epic poem in Thai, called the Ramakien. In Thailand you are usually told that Rama I did it; in fact he wrote the poem in exactly the same way that King James translated the Bible into English. It runs to 3,000 pages. The Ramakien has become the national epic, due partly no doubt to the fact that the king promoted it. Around the walls of his new wat he had the Ramakien painted.

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The frieze, first painted over two hundred years ago, is substantially renovated every fifty years, but it is constantly being painted like the Forth Bridge. (Actually, the Forth Bridge is no longer painted constantly. We need a new simile.) It is great fun to walk around, if completely baffling. There are verse inscriptions for each panel, in Thai naturally. Even if you know the Ramayana, the Ramakien frieze is a bit different. Many of the characters, for example, have different names, and Hanuman plays a greater role in the Thai version:

    Rama is Ram in the Thai version
    Ravana is Thotsakan
    Sita is Sida
    Sugriwa is Sukhreep
    Lakshmana is Lak, and so on.

The paintings are vibrant, with plenty of gold leaf. There is no perspective and usually no horizon. There are a lot of towns; despite the fact that the story is set elsewhere, the architecture of the towns is very detailed and entirely Thai. The frieze is extremely imaginative and often bloody.

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And among the heroics are everyday scenes. These monkeys are playing ta kraw with a light rattan ball. It is also seen around Indonesia and is played at the SE Asian Games. There are several versions, but the one you see most often is like volleyball for the feet. I saw a good match in Rantepao, Tana Toraja. Skill levels were amazing, particularly when it came to the smash, or spike.

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A chariot.

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The monkeys punish their prisoners.

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Rama shoots; he scores.

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Sita says: talk to the hand.

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Hanuman turns himself into a bridge.

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Kumbakarna turns himself into a dam, in order to block the water supplies of Rama's army.

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Sugriwa breaks the Pichai Molee parasol.

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Hanuman chats up Suphanmacha.

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Hanuman puts Rama's pavilion in his mouth, but doesn't inhale.

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Posted by Wardsan 13:09 Archived in Thailand Comments (3)

Where next?

sunny 21 °C
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I did not take advantage of all that Chiang Mai has to offer – I'm not referring to the go-go bars – because I’ve been in jobseeking mode. I didn’t go to Doi Inthanon National Park, for example, or visited the wats in Lamphun. So my memories of the place will not be as pleasant as they might have been. I could try to turn back into a tourist for the time left on the trip – which may not be long – but I decided it would be easier to go somewhere else and reinvent myself as a tourist there.

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I made a mistake siting myself right in the tourist zone by the Tha Phae gate at the eastern edge of the old town. None of the local restaurants serve real Thai food. It would be better to stay right in the middle of the old town, or to the east of it near the Ping river, or to the west near the university.

Yesterday I gave khao soi another go, prompted by Adam, a friend from old job. Khao soi and raw sausages are the two dishes for which Chiang Mai is most known. I had eaten it a couple of times and it had been a perfectly pleasant egg noodle soup with a sauce tasting like yellow curry. Yesterday I walked to a place on the outskirts of town and tried the khao soi there. It was brown, rather than yellow, with very little coconut cream in it. The dish originally came from Burma, which is not too far away, and this version was probably more authentic, since it tasted like an Indian curry. In fact, tasting blind, I would have said it was a mulligatawny. The sausages were fantastic though.

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As I munched and slurped a funeral passed. First in the procession came the saffron monks. Then walked the funeral group, in black. Some of them dragged the wooden funeral pavilion, twelve foot tall and ornately decorated. In front of the coffin lay a photograph of the dead woman. Pavilion and coffin would be burnt shortly afterwards. And behind the pavilion came a car with enormous speakers strapped to the roof, blaring tuneless music.

Yesterday lunch: a cheese and pickle sandwich. Just as good.

I went to the zoo in the afternoon. It is potentially a very good zoo, but is marred by the inadequate map and useless signposting. I spent most of the time walking down roads not seeing animals. The aquarium is OK, but not really worth the money.

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Last night I went to a place called The Pub and had a pie and chips. Then I joined the pub quiz, playing with John and Peter from Salisbury. All the teams were amazingly homogeneous: middle-aged men. All the teams got four or five on music and nine on history. We won, though, and were given two 500 baht vouchers. One came to me and the other to the other two. I spent my voucher and they spent theirs. It was only afterwards that I realised that I had spent half of the prize for three people.

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This was, I can only think, the result of a heuristic called ‘anchoring and alcohol’. The people who first identified it were Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, two intellectual heroes of mine. Kahneman, a psychologist, received a Nobel prize in economics a few years back; Tversky would have done too but he was dead. (The Nobels do not go to dead people, otherwise surely Rosalind Franklin would have got one.) They called it the ‘anchoring and adjustment’ heuristic. To oversimplify, once you have thought of a number, it is hard to think of anything else. Once I was given a plastic 500 baht card, it became mine, even though the allocation was unfair. That’s my excuse anyway.

I have been agonising for several days over whether to go to Cambodia or southern Thailand. Before setting off I would have said that there were two places I definitely wanted to visit: Angkor and Sarawak. In the event I haven’t made it to either.

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Nevertheless I think I am going to head south. The problem is that I do not know when the trip comes to an end. This may be my last ten days travelling, and I want to enjoy them to the maximum. That means doing what I most enjoy: diving and looking at animals. And after travelling up to Chiang Mai via Ayutthaya and Sukhothai I am sick to death of wats, temporarily I hope. And tired of travelling, actually. Alternatively, I could just stay in Bangkok and concentrate on gastronomy.

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In Our Time has broadcast a four-programme special on Darwin, in honour of the bicentennial. I can’t wait to listen to it. You don’t hear anything about Darwin in this part of the world. Newton and Shakespeare aren't so big either.

Fire spiny eels.

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Brown lemurs.

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Leopard shark.

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Silver pheasant

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Indian roller.

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White-cheeked gibbon.

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Posted by Wardsan 00:22 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Nu Gini


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Of all the places I have been, Papua was the least like any other. The reason is simple: despite the diversity of language, religion and food across Southeast Asia, many of the characteristics of the countries in the region are shared. New Guinea, on the other hand, is not Asian. There is plenty to say about the place and it is hanging over me like an essay crisis, so I’ll split the posts into two and start with the background briefing.

The five biggest islands in the world are Greenland, New Guinea, Borneo, Madagascar and Sumatra. Indonesia owns all or part of three of them.

At slightly under 800,000 square kilometres, New Guinea is only a little larger than Borneo. The land west of 141º E is Papua, a part of Indonesia previously known as Irian Jaya (irian means land of hot weather in the language of Biak). It accounts for 22% of Indonesia’s land area.

The second-largest rain forest in the world is in New Guinea. It is not as rich in tropical hardwoods as Borneo and so has not been so intensively logged. However, we did see a lot of evidence of logging in Biak, where there is a sawmill.

The island and its mountains are relatively young. Sedimentary limestone, sandstone and shale have been pushed up as the Sahul Shelf and the Pacific Ocean Plate collide, and so the island is mountainous. There is an igneous intrusion in the Sudirman range, at the western end of the central spine. Gold, silver and copper are found here, and mined by Freeport.

The two highest mountains in southeast Asia are often said to be in Papua. They are permanently glaciated. The highest is Puncak Jayakésuma, which reaches either 4,884 m or 5,029 m depending on your source; about the height of Mont Blanc.

But New Guinea shares its continental shelf with Australia, to which it was attached until the end of the last Ice Age, and it must be considered part of Australia, not Asia. If so, the highest mountain in southeast Asia is in Burma.

The two parts of the Australian continent are wholly different, as Jared Diamond points out in his fascinating book Guns, Germs and Steel. New Guinea is very mountainous; Australia is the flattest continent. New Guinea is one of the wettest places on earth (most places receive over 2,500mm of rainfall annually, the highlands over 5,000 mm); Australia one of the driest (mostly under 500 mm annually). New Guinea has permanent large rivers; Australia’s rivers mostly dry up in the summer. New Guinea lies just off the equator; most of Australia is sub-tropical or temperate. New Guinea is covered in rainforest; the Australian interior is desert. Australia has the oldest rocks, and the oldest and most infertile soils on earth. New Guinea has young, fertile soil. New Guinea, a tenth of the size of Australia, has as many species of birds and mammals. And, by the way, indigenous Australian languages appear to be unrelated to New Guinean.

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The very shallow Arafura Sea separates the two hemi-continents, and land bridges to Australia have appeared occasionally. When the two halves have been connected, the bridge has been dry savannah, not rainforest. The last land bridge disappeared 16,000-18,000 years ago. Temperatures were seven degrees cooler then, and the snow line lay only a thousand metres above sea level.

The largest indigenous animal is the cassowary (kasuari).

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Many, but not all, native mammals are marsupials. The native marsupials are wallabies, tree kangaroos, bandicoots, possums and cuscus. There are two monotremes (‘one-holes’, because they lay eggs and defecate through the same orifice): the short-beaked echidna, Tachyglossus aculeatus, also found in Australia, and the long-beaked echidna, Zaglossus bruijni, endemic to New Guinea. Most of the amphibians and many of the small mammals (rodents and bats) are Asian in origin. Overall there are 63 marsupials, two monotremes, 59 murids and 77 bats. (The population of mammals is massively more diverse than anywhere in the nearby Moluccas, where the largest island, Halmahera, has only 31 species. Almost all the mammals of the Moluccas are bats and rats.)

There are more frogs in New Guinea than anywhere else: over two hundred species. Twenty new species were discovered on an expedition into the interior only two years ago. There are also estuarine crocodiles, monitors, other lizards, and lots of snakes.

So far 640 species of birds have been found in Papua – fewer than in Thailand, but still plenty. They include crowned pigeons, parrots, cockatoos, lories, kingfishers, megapods, bower birds, cassowaries, and, of course, birds of paradise.

There are 42 species of Paradisaeidae – which also include riflebirds and sicklebills - including 36 in New Guinea. Birds of paradise have been traded across the world for centuries. Janissaries’ headdresses bore their feathers in the fourteenth century. The birds were traded as skins without feet, and hence grew the myth, accepted by Linnaeus, that the birds themselves did not have legs.

I thought I saw one in the Baliem Valley. It was a dull brown colour, and appeared at first sight to be carrying a huge golden feather, which was in fact probably its tail. I asked the boy walking next to me what it was. “Burung”, he said. “A bird.” Ah. Actually, birds of paradise live in the Bird’s Head peninsula, to the northwest, and on Pulau Yapen near Biak, not in the highlands. [I'm not so sure any more. In Throwim Way Leg, zoologist Tim Flannery recounts seeing several different species of bird of paradise in the highlands of New Guinea. I think it may well have been a bird of paradise. This is a bark picture on sale on an island in Lake Sentani; the bird I saw looked much the same.]

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The trade in birds of paradise is now banned, but I saw some bags made of birds of paradise in Wamena. One bag had a whole bird on it, beak included.

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As for arthropods, there are very large butterflies in the region, including very large Papilio and Idea species, and Pieridae. There are stick insects and katydids, and thousands upon thousands of species of beetles.

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There are also 800 species of spider, including the bird-eating spider. The strangest spider we saw was small, wider than it was long, and shell-bound like a crab (I saw the same in Banda) - possibly a spiny-backed orb weaver.

New Guinea may host the greatest concentration of plant species in the world: perhaps 16,000. There are 2,500 species of orchid alone. Perhaps 90% of its flowering plant species are unique to New Guinea. The swamps to the south of the central mountains have the most extensive patches of sago palm in the world. Sago is the staple of all lowland Papuans. As Wallace observed, it is the least labour-intensive of all staples. It requires less than half the man hours required to obtain the equivalent amount of starch growing wet rice. The sago palm is not farmed, merely collected.

Here are some sago palms next to Lake Sentani, in northeast Papua.

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And Indonesia has more mangroves than any other country. Seventy per cent of them are in Papua.

A life of ease causes a problem. Hunter-gatherers have usually switched to settled farming when the cost-benefit analysis (energy produced minus energy consumed in production) favours farming, although there are other factors in this decision. So easy is sago to collect that the inhabitants of the southern swamps remained hunter-gatherers until modern times, even though their neighbours to the north began farming 9,000 years ago. Wallace observed that wherever people rely on sago, they are poor.

(The Austronesians never relied on sago. They were the ones who traded with Tidore, Bugis and China. Their main exports were bird of paradise skins and slaves.)

Homo sapiens settled New Guinea and Australia 30,000-40,000 years ago at the latest. Papuans and Australian Aborigines are the descendants of the early arrivals. Although there are populated islands all the way between New Guinea and Cape York, the two populations have been substantially genetically isolated for at least ten thousand years, and they look surprisingly different. Papuans are typically frizzy-haired and hairy. They often have hair on their backs, although oddly not in the region of their penis gourds; perhaps it is shaved. Australian Aborigines tend to have curly or wavy hair rather than frizzy. (And blood group B occurs in the Papuan population but not in indigenous Australians.)

Even within New Guinea, populations have been relatively isolated, both by the rugged terrain and by the constant warfare. Despite the relatively high population density in the highlands, the population of New Guinea never exceeded a million before the arrival of colonial administrations, which brought medicine and largely ended warfare. This was fragmented into tiny micropopulations. A lot of languages are spoken – perhaps 1,000, a sixth of the languages of the world. (The figures vary wildly depending on the source.) The population is only 2.7 million, so most languages are spoken by very few people: more than half have fewer than 500 speakers. Many of these languages are completely unrelated. They can be divided into at least five phyla, which share only tiny fractions of their vocabularies and are as unrelated as English and Basque: the East Bird’s Head; Cenderawasih Bay; West Irian; Austronesian; and Trans-New Guinea. The Trans-New Guinea phylum accounts of 84% of speakers of Papuan languages and two thirds of the languages.

Austronesian languages are spoken natively in parts of the north and northwest coasts (Indonesian is spoken by everyone who has been to school). The Austronesians began spreading, perhaps from Taiwan, down through the Philippines and into Malaysia and Indonesia, beginning 6,000-7,000 years ago. They reached most of the Indonesian islands around 3,000 BC. Everywhere they went, they displaced the original inhabitants – except in New Guinea, which had long before reached a high degree of agricultural sophistication. Instead the Austronesians settled along the coast, from where they gave Papuan languages many loan words. At the same time the Trans-New Guinea languages were spreading west to Timor, Alor and Pantar, and into the highlands of New Guinea.

(The source for most of this information is Irian Jaya, by Kal Muller.)

The most densely populated part of New Guinea was always the highlands. People have lived here for at least 25,000 years. The high valleys are fertile, temperate and have little malaria. This is where agriculture began in New Guinea, 9,000 years or more ago.

Irrigation seems to have been discovered very early; the earliest drainage ditches discovered are 9,000 years old, and they are similar to today’s. This allowed for very short fallow periods. They cut down forests, drained swamps, fenced fields and turned the valley into gardens. Even 5,000 years ago, deforestation was already well advanced. Taro and yams may have been the first crops; later came sugar cane and bananas. Taro and sugar cane are from New Guinea, as are some yams; bananas were assumed to be introduced from Asia but some species are actually endemic. In fact there are no highland crops known unequivocally to have come from Asia. Agriculture undoubtedly occurred here independently of Asia, by domestication of local wild species. New Guinea may have been left behind technologically, but once upon a time it was not backward at all; the Austronesians failed to colonise the interior of Papua, probably because it was already intensively farmed. (One thing they did always lack was domesticated animals capable of providing power, like oxen.)

There were later agricultural revolutions arising from the introduction of foreigners: pigs; the sweet potato. Each agricultural revolution supports a higher population density. Chickens are also certainly foreign. Chickens and pigs were domesticated in Asia and brought to Papua by the Austronesians 3,500 years ago (although pigs may have arrived earlier). Wet rice was introduced at some time point after 1,000 BC, but it never took off in the highlands.

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Sweet potatoes came from the Andes. They may have arrived from the Philippines, where they were introduced by the Spanish, or they may have arrived by some other route 2,000 years earlier. They grow more rapidly, have a higher yield per acre and they grow well at higher altitudes and in poorer soil than taro, so they quickly replaced it as the staple in the highlands.

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Posted by Wardsan 16:07 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

KL Bird Park 2


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Four months ago I posted a batch of photos of the bird park in Kuala Lumpur, and then forgot about the rest. Here are the others, for my Aunt Jane. Be well.

Macau.

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Great white pelican.

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Greater flamingoes.

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Sacred ibis.

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Yellow-billed stork.

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Cattle egrets. Wherever there are paddies, there are egrets.

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Brahminy kite.

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Posted by Wardsan 18:15 Archived in Malaysia Tagged animal Comments (0)

New Town

Chiang Mai

sunny
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Musicians at the Sunday Market.

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  • **

I have put together a job application or two (male model and president for life of Uzbekistan, since you ask). Reviewing my old CVs, I am encouraged to discover that I invented penicillin, the safety pin and the internet and brought peace to millions.

To the west of the old city is a wildly eccentric museum called Insect World. It is run by Manop Rattanarithikul, who is in his mid-seventies. It all started when he was employed as a collector, paid 12 baht a day, for the Malaria and Filariasis Control of Thailand project, run by the US Army. In time he grew to like mosquitoes. He would catch them by allowing them to land on his arm; when they had to be kept alive, he would keep them in a box with holes that were small enough to prevent escape but large enough to allow the mosquitoes to feed on his arm. Not surprisingly, he has had malaria many times.

He went to university in Bangkok, where he met his wife Rampa. She too became a mosquito taxonomist and then a medical entomologist. They both spent the summer of 1965 at the Smithsonian Institue in DC as mosquito taxonomists. Manop eventually went off to practise law but Rampa remained a taxonomist and has, since 1961, identified 436 mosquitoes in Thailand, including 18 new species. There are about 3,000 species in the world. She completed a PhD at Kobe University in 1996.

The entrance is crammed with wooden objects carved by the action of water or by termites. It’s not hugely interesting. The room at the back is devoted to mainly mosquitoes, and partly to butterflies and beetles. Manop loves mosquitoes to well beyond the point of lunacy. “The mosquito bites to remind you of good spirits relations,” he says. “She wishes everybody to love and care for each other.”

He says she, of course, because the males do not suck blood. They live instead on tree sap or flower nectar. He is at pains to emphasise that only ten of the 436 species are disease vectors. The diseases spread by mosquitoes include malaria (by genus Anopheles), dengue fever (by Aedes species), Japanese encephalitis (by genus Culex), and Filariasis (by species of the genus Mansonia). Filariasis is also known as elephant foot, and produces extraordinary swelling of the lower limbs and often of the external genitalia. Nasty. Fortunately the chances of someone in good health developing the disease after being bitten are 1 in 500,000.

Only three hundred people a year actually die of malaria in Thailand, which is nothing from an African perspective. The government’s longstanding malaria prevention project has been fairly successful. On the other hand, in 2007 there were 58,836 cases of dengue fever in Thailand.

They have examples of the mosquito species pinned behind glass – although there are also a lot of live, hungry mosquitoes in the museum. I have been much bothered, in Indonesia especially, by a fairly large mosquito which flies swiftly enough that it is difficult to smack. It bites repeatedly in one meal and the bites swell a fair bit. Its limbs are striped black and white like Cat in the Hat’s stovepipe hat (except that’s red and white). I couldn’t find it in the collection.

Manop also paints, in a common Thai style, using garish Hyde Park Corner colours. Mosquitoes are in all of the paintings, often feeding on humans. He is on the mosquitoes’ side.

Upstairs there is a rather more orthodox collection of insects, mainly butterflies, moths and beetles (estimates vary enormously, but there are thought to be 180,000 species of Lepidoptera and 290,000 of Coleoptera, so they are the two largest orders of insects). The beetles and butterflies of southeast Asia, as Wallace found, are truly outlandish. (This is the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Wallace’s esteemed colleague Charles Darwin.) There are hundreds of specimens of his longhorn beetles in the museum. These are scarabs.

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This is a weevil that much resembles a weevil illustrated in The Malay Archipelago.

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In Bangkok large numbers of middle-aged men are walking around with Thai girls or boys. They are not all married. A large proportion of tourists travelling from Europe to Thailand come for sex, and they go to Bangkok and Pattaya. Or so I thought. But Chiang Mai is also full of such temporary couples.

I went to the Night Market last night and on the way I saw where these couples meet. The street leading to the market is lined with bars and restaurants. The girls sit out the front of the bars and greet every male passerby. You can’t go into one of these bars for a quiet drink. There are also a couple of gogo bars with shows.

I assume they are girls, anyway. You can never tell in Thailand. On Saturday night I saw lots of ladyboys out on the town and dressed to kill. As is often observed, they have great legs.

I didn’t find the market especially interesting. There are lots of stalls selling items largely of limited quality, as at home. I’m not in the market for cushion covers, woven cloth bags or wooden boxes. It would be different if were a girl or collected knick-knacks. It’s a sign that I have been to too many markets.

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As in Bangkok, tiny Hmong (or Yao?) women wander around trying to sell wooden objects that make a noise like a frog.

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My blog has now had 45,000 visits.

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The day before visiting the Museum I attended a cookery course at the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School. It was very well organised, as it needed to be with 19 of us (the school operates seven days a week, and at that rate makes weekly revenues of £2,700, which goes a long way in Thailand).

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There were three demonstrators, who took turns, and owner and TV chef Sompon Nabnian. We cooked and ate six dishes and got a recipe book at the end of it.

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There is nothing difficult about Thai cookery, but I have not cooked a thing in over nine months and found it difficult even to put together a phad thai (the only boring dish in Thailand, which all the tourists eat). We also made tom yam gung, gaeng kheo wan gai (green curry), laab gai, tord man plaa (fish cakes) and tab tim grob (water chestnuts in coconut milk). Lao cookery is almost identical – Isaan and Lao cultures are much the same – but on the Lao cookery course we used MSG, or chicken stock as a substitute. Here we used palm sugar instead, which as well as tasting sweet and slightly spicy, contains glutamates. It’s a better solution.

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Dhammachakra flags and votive pendants at a wat in Chiang Mai.

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And an alien.

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Posted by Wardsan 16:58 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

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