A Travellerspoint blog

January 2009

Statistics

I have been eating cheese and drinking ale.

Excluding nights spent on trains, planes, boats and coaches, in apartments and in random buildings in Papua, I stayed in 101 different hotels.

Range: 98º E (Phuket) to 141º E (Jayapura), 22º N (Sapa) to 8º S (Ende).

Books read on the trip: at least 72.

  • **

I mentioned how difficult it was to find a decent bookshop in Singapore. In one large bookshop I found: eight shelving units devoted to home and gardens; twelve to cooking; six to travel; eight to parenting; sixteen to health; twenty to self-improvement; five to new age/feng shui; five to religion; and… three to science.

  • **

Some websites I have been enjoying recently:

- Bad Science
- spEak You’re bRanes (don’t follow this link if you are going to be offended by bad language, or are thick or illiterate)
- The rotating skyscraper in Dubai.

  • **

The last books of the trip.

Adam’s Navel, Michael Sims. As John Banville said in a review, “a witty and erudite jackdaw’s nest of a book.” And it’s brilliantly written. Did you know for example:
• Burned skin peels because the sun’s UV attacks and kills the skin cells. A good sunscreen does two things: the inorganic molecules help scatter the radiation, while the organic molecules absorb it.
• The body may have evolved its hairless state to assist in the functioning of sweat glands.
• The human foetus grows a moustache four weeks after conception, and by the end of the fifth month it is completely hairy. During the last few weeks of pregnancy the foetus usually sheds the hair, which joins mucus and bile to form the meconium, the baby’s first bowel movement after birth.
• We have an average of 5 million hairs, 100,000-150,000 on the head. Even aquatic mammals are hairy as embryos.
• Hair, like nails, rhino horn and skin itself, is made largely of keratin, and it’s insoluble in water.
• Samson was a lifelong Nazirite. So was John the Baptist, and so was the judge and prophet Samuel. The Black Jews of Ethiopia, the Falashas, are Nazirites.
• The head is the first part of the embryo to differentiate, and is more developed at birth, which is why development of the newborn baby moves down the body from the head to the feet.
• We recognise human faces more easily than chimp faces, and faces in our ethnic group more easily than others. Newborns prefer moving faces. Only after two months can they learn to recognise static faces.
• Prosopagnosia is the inability to recognise a face. From Greek prosopon, face.
• The word pupil comes from Latin pupilla, little doll, referring to the image you see of yourself in another’s eye.
• The eyebrows are raised primarily by the epicranius frontalis, pulled down by the procerus, drawn together by the corrugators supercilii. Supercilious refers to someone raising an eyebrow to express contempt.
• In ancient Greece and Rome, women prized monobrows, and painted them on if their brows were separate.

Also:

    Flashman’s Lady, George Macdonald Fraser
    Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt
    Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, Giles Milton
    Everyman, Philip Roth
    Arthur and George, Julian Barnes

Posted by Wardsan 12:22 Comments (0)

Return

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Ovid yearned for an end to his exile, which may have been provoked by his Clintonian inability to keep it in his trousers. I don't feel the same way, but I am returning home anyway at short notice for a job interview. I'll probably continue to blog a little bit, since I have written little or nothing about Biak, the Papua trip, Bali, Ayutthaya, Sukhothai, Tana Toraja or the Moluccas.

Some statistics

How many seas and oceans have I seen, o Muse? The South China Sea, Gulf of Thailand, Melaka Straits, Sulu Sea, Celebes Sea, Java Sea, Flores Sea, Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean, Banda Sea and Andaman Sea. Possibly more.

Countries visited: 6.

Distance travelled since arriving in Bangkok: 39, 387 km. That is measuring point to point, and is an underestimate. It is approximately the circumference of the Earth, and more than Wallace travelled in eight years in the region. But his journeys were hard.

Equator crossings: 6.

Most internet connections: Vietnam and Singapore. Fewest: Indonesia.

Locations dived, thirteen in four countries: Nha Trang, Ko Pha Ngan, Sipadan, Redang, Perhentians, Tulamben, Gili Lembongan, the Gilis, Komodo, Bunaken, Lembeh Straits, Ambon, Similan. That is quite a list.

None of these was a bad place to dive. The best reef dive sites were Sipadan (turtles, sharks, barracuda) and Komodo (large rays and giant trevally). Most honourable mentions: Bunaken; Pulau Tiga, Ambon; Similans; the Perhentians and Redang.

The best muck dive sites were Lembeh Straits and Ambon Bay.

Number of dives: 80.

Places where I swam: 27.

Take-offs and landings: 31. Flights with Air Asia, 12. As I may have said before, Air Asia is like Ryan Air, except without the psychopathic attitude. A company partly owned by Air Asia and partly by Richard Branson is to open a route between Kuala Lumpur and Stansted on March 11. Tickets for economy seats start at £99. Hopefully it will introduce greater competition into the market for flights between Europe and Southeast Asia.

Things I’ll miss:

    - Cheap, tasty food, especially seafood
    - Sunlight
    - General friendliness and courtesy, especially in Thailand, Laos and Indonesia
    - Meeting a wide selection of interesting and downright weird people
    - Effortless slimness
    - Diving
    - Swimming in the sea
    - Free Premiership football
    - Big butterflies
    - Frangipani, bougainvillea, Heliconia and hibiscus
    - Seeing completely incomprehensible things
    - Not having to wear shoes
    - The aromatic leaves of Thailand and Vietnam
    - The wai
    - Cheap laundry
    - News blackouts
    - Eagles
    - Geckoes, chameleons and skinks
    - Street food vendors (kebab death vans don’t count)
    - Trains that cost 30p for a two hour journey; buses that cost £1 for a five hour trip.
    - Cheap motorbike taxis. They should have them in London.
    - Vietnamese and Indonesian coffee
    - Not fearing physical violence
    - Well-behaved schoolchildren
    - Nam pla, belacan, sambal, tom yum, roti canai, ga xao sa ơt, beef rendang, Penang curry, dried broad beans, fried rice, bananas with coconut cream, rice with every meal, and a lot more.

Things I won’t miss:

    - Drain smells, especially in Malaysia
    - Being hassled on the street all the time
    - Gastric flu
    - Lugging a camera everywhere
    - Noodle soup (except cáu lâu in Hội An and khao soi in Chiang Mai)
    - Cold showers
    - Cockroaches, big spiders, mosquitoes, cicadas
    - Durians
    - Being served the starter with or after the main course
    - Sweet fizzy beer
    - Sweet soya sauce
    - Sweet bread
    - Fluorescent yellow pineapple jam
    - Banging my head on lintels
    - Hawking, sniffing, spitting, loud eating
    - Living out of a rucksack
    - Brushing teeth with bottled water
    - Tuk-tuks
    - Being stared at
    - Being woken an hour before dawn by an amplified call to prayer
    - Filthy Thai coffee
    - Having to wear a hat
    - Being unable to express myself
    - Illiteracy (mine)
    - Trying to balance heavy British plugs in Asian sockets
    - Wearing the same five t-shirts all the time
    - Dairy cravings
    - Markets – I’m so over them
    - Deet
    - Asian plumbing
    - Being foreign
    - Open storm drains
    - The process of getting from A to B.

Looking forward to:

    - Seeing some people
    - Frost
    - Visibly deciduous trees
    - The Thames
    - Walking along the pavement
    - The bookshop on Gower Street
    - Having a debit card
    - Cooking
    - London tap water
    - Wearing jeans
    - Some really good French wine, French mustard, sherry, cheese, English family chocolate, English ale, bread, HP sauce, Lagavulin, limoncello, black pudding
    - Arabica coffee in Covent Garden
    - The British Museum and the Natural History Museum
    - The Economist every week.

Regrets

    Not seeing Angkor.
    Not visiting Sarawak; Ternate and Tidore; the Kai islands; Sumatra; southern Laos; Alor; northeastern Thailand; the national parks east of Bandung.
    Not finding the time to return to Luang Prabang.
    Not climbing Fansipan or the peak of Rinjani.
    Not seeing Mt Merapi, near Solo.
    Not persevering with Indonesian.
    Visiting Kon Tum.
    Not getting to order spider or dog.
    Not seeing mola mola in Nusa Lembongan.
    Too many temples; not enough national parks.

Posted by Wardsan 04:30 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Khao Sok

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In Khao Sok National Park I oscillate in a string-vest hammock, assaulted by the shrieking of cicadas. Butterflies small, large and immense dart about in the garden in front of me, and within fifty yards there are probably a hundred species of plant. It’s a good spot from which to contemplate the diversity of life, and one of the men who explained it. The four In Our Time programmes on Darwin (Radio 4 podcasts) are first-rate broadcasting.

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Here is a lizard that lived in and around my bathroom.

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The first thing to do in the park was a night walk in the jungle. I am by now no virgin noctambulist and I know that night walks are hot, sticky, and somewhat stressful. You can’t see much, the noises are loud, and things with too many legs land on you. (The noise is mainly the susurration of insects, the bark of frogs and the hoots of owls.) Sometimes you see nothing all walk.

On this occasion I walked with Nit, who used to be a hunter of tigers and elephants, but became a guide 13 years ago and much prefers his new job. We were relatively fortunate, I suppose. Nit showed me discarded carapaces of cicadas, several spiders, a huge moth, and two mouse deer. Their eyes reflected grey-green in the torchlight, and their bodies appeared grey and very small. They didn’t seem too concerned by the torchlight.

Mouse deer are even-toed ungulates, in the same sub-order as deer, giraffes, cattle, goats, sheep and antelope; but in a different infraorder from all of these. Their stomachs have only three chambers.

I did not see: gaur, benteng, clouded leopard, tapir, civet. Few people see any of these except the last.

The following day I joined an organised trip to Lake Rajaprapa, which was created three decades ago by a dam. Over a hundred new islands were created, and many animals were literally isolated. A rescue operation was mounted at a cost of 1.8 million baht, and 1,346 animals were saved. Most, I imagine, died shortly thereafter, stressed by their capture and homeless.

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The lake is big – about 165 square kilometres – and highly fractal, so it would be easy to get lost. The lake is fringed and penetrated by unreal Leonardoeque molars and incisors, much like Hạ Long Bay and the area around Ninh Bình.

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There were about ten of us from the UK and Australia. We took a longtail boat for about an hour to a floating guesthouse.

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I paddled for an hour in a tubby canoe and eventually came across some monkeys. In shape they closely resembled proboscis monkeys, with pot-bellied bodies and long, thick grey tails. Their backs were black and their bellies light grey. They were dusky langurs. I could not get a decent photo.

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The view from the canoe.

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We ate a grand lunch of river fish and various curries, and then took another longtail boat to another part of the lake. We walked for half an hour and saw two chameleons. The guide, Dicky, managed to get hold of one, but it escaped while being transferred between custodians.

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Then we took a bamboo raft to a large cave with stalagmites and stalactites. I’ve seen too many caves. It is a general problem, which afflicts all long-term travellers. You’ve seen something like it before, so you are inevitably less impressed. The same is true for temples, jungles, diving - everything, except perhaps food. The only cure is not to travel - which is worse than the disease.

Two nights ago I dined on orchid tempura; yesterday lunchtime on salad, made with the furled heads of young ferns. (A furled fern head is a crozier, which I think is a wonderful description.) A Thai salad has only two essential ingredients: lime juice and chilli, and huge quantities of both, so that to call the Thai salad hot and sour is like calling Pele a bit good. You very often encounter some combination of green papaya, cashews, coriander, celery stalks, onion, garlic, shallots and green beans, but anything goes.

On the final day at Khao Sok I went for a stroll. I believe that the only way to walk around a jungle, unless someone is shooting at you, is alone or in a group of two. A guide is mildly useful for showing you elephant tracks and telling you stories about how local people use the palms to make alcohol or obtain resin from certain dipterocarps, and extremely useful for ensuring that you do not get lost. But I think I see more animals on my own. I walk quietly, stop frequently to look or listen, and cover two km or less in an hour.

Among other things I saw a few more chameleons.

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One was eating a bug, very slowly, as if under doctor's orders to chew 32 times.

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Among the many birds was a largish bird with a long tail, an orange-red breast and navy blue head and wings. It had a beautiful, babbling, varied song.

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Beside the paths were large tornado-shaped webs. A fanged spider lurked low-slung just inside each funnel, waiting to envenom trespassers.

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I saw two troupes of long-tailed macaques. The second was not at all shy. Twin babies play-fought. Harold Wilson smoked his pipe.

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A mutton-chopped adult showed a disturbing obsession with my camera.

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As I came back along the path, most of the family were on the ground. Three of them crouched on one of the information signs, apparently in submission to the only God (and perhaps there is a gibbon God and a langur Lord). They were hoovering insects.

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Posted by Wardsan 20:49 Archived in Thailand Comments (1)

Khao Lak

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My expenditure has crept up in the last few weeks, and I think this is natural. Most people have a blowout at the end of the holiday.

This raises the old question: what is money worth at the moment? If I go back six weeks early, I have six weeks more money to spend, right? Wrong: those six weeks don’t disappear; they will probably be spent in London, which is more expensive. That suggests spending less out here. But the determining factor is when I get a job. If I get a job earlier because I returned earlier, I have more money to spend. Trouble is, I don’t know.

Anyway, I feel like spending a little more money. Before diving I stayed at a fairly posh resort in Khao Lak. My room cost a third of the bungalows, and I still got to experience the manicured lawns.

Khao Lak is a tourist resort. There are souvenir shops, guest houses, restaurants. There are a score of opticians in a half-mile strip, and two ‘Irish’ pubs. It is a bit Benidorm on the Andaman Sea. German is very much the dominant language. I just spent three nights on a dive liveaboard in the Similan islands, and I was the only guest without German as a native language. (It’s the following morning and the world is still swaying.)

The food in Khao Lak is poor, although you can probably get a decent Hahn mit Knoblauch. Proper Thai food is a balance between sweet, spicy, salt and sour. Usually you find four pots of sauces and sugar at the table, so that you can adjust this balance. Not here. Nor in the centre of Chiang Mai. And there is little spice. I suppose this is because Germans do not have the constant exposure to chilli that we do in Britain and so do not acquire the taste for it. (I should emphasise that this is an observation, not a criticism.) Actually, the Thai restaurants in Britain are remarkably authentic, down to the bitter little pea aubergines in the curry, something that is not true of Indian and Chinese restaurants.

Khao Lak was hit very hard by the tsunami of Boxing Day 2004. Four thousand people died or disappeared in Khao Lak alone. The main drag is on the main coastal road north, well above the sea, but there is a road right by the coast, and the wave was five metres high when it swept over the road. That road is well above the beach; the tsunami was 11 m high. All the buildings on the coast were destroyed, of course, so nothing by the beach is more than four years old. But there are a lot of buildings; you can’t see any evidence of damage at all and the tourists are back in swarms.

Now there are tsunami warning signs everywhere: "you are now in a tsunami danger zone". There are also tsunami evacuation paths, also known as roads. I walked up one, and it terminated in a padlocked gate. So much for that.

On my penultimate dive yesterday I saw three octopuses. One was walking slowly, backwards, and darkened itself and forced itself into a tiny niche when I got too close (they have no skeletons). The other two looked like a single one. At first I saw the limbs, and each limb seemed to be wrapped around another, as if the cephalopod had severe pruritis. Then I saw a head peering out of a hole eighteen inches way. Gradually the limbs resolved themselves into two octopuses (or octopodes), one trying to escape. The octopus whose head was visible had its tentacles wrapped around the escapee. It looked like a case of unwilling mating. The clingy octopus was coloured dark fox; the other a sickly pale celadon.

Posted by Wardsan 09:08 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Wat Phra Kaeow

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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)

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