Two Bangkok sightseeing attractions

Bangkok is certainly not one of the world’s most beautiful cities but it must qualify as one of the world’s most exciting. A city that is flat, low-lying, polluted and crowded is unlikely to win any beauty contests. But if you add some of the world’s most enterprising and attractive people, a flamboyant architectural style, a diverse economy and a natural love of life, you will end up with variety, excitement and, believe it or not, style. That is Bangkok today.

Bangkok, known to the Thais as “Krungthep” (City of Angles), was established in 1782 by King Rama 1 as the capital of Siam. Since then, it has developed into a city of some 10 million with an intriguing mixture of East and West, the traditional and the modern. The city has a number of traditional tourist attractions that every visitor must see but you also need to wander down some back streets to see life as many Thais know it. Traditional pastimes and attitudes are very much part of many people’s lives. Here are two contrasting suggestions for all visitors to the city.

Jim Thompson’s House

I have been here at least six times and I never tire of the place. It really is something quite special. This was the home of Jim Thompson, an American architect who settled in Thailand after World War 11 and turned his energy to reinvigorating the Thai silk industry. His efforts were highly successful and in the process he made considerable profit. But he disappeared in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia under quite strange circumstances in 1967 and has never been seen since.

For his contribution to the development of the Thai Silk industry, Jim Thompson was awarded the Order of the White Elephant, a decoration bestowed upon foreigners for having rendered exceptional service to Thailand. Thompson’s success story in Thailand has become one of the most popular postwar legends of Asia.

Since his disappearance in 1967, little has changed in the home that was the ‘talk of the town’ and the ‘city’s most celebrated social center’. Even today, the charming Thai style house continues to be a key stop for visitors to Bangkok.

The house consists of a complex of six traditional Thai-style houses, teak structures that were purchased from several owners and brought to the present location from various parts of Thailand. Construction of the Thai house was completed in 1959.

The house is at the end of a narrow soi off Rama 1 Road (there is a sign post at this corner), in a small tranquil garden which is a world apart from Bangkok’s normal traffic and noise. The house is a great example of real tropical luxury. I would love to create such an atmosphere for myself. The house contains a splendid Asian art collection together with personal belongings from Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and China. The garden and its several buildings are also worth some of your time.

Inspection of the house is only by guided tour and this lasts about 30 minutes. The guide tells you about the objects in the house and shows how Thompson was able to improve the traditional Thai architecture in several ways. Afterwards you can wander the garden by yourself and visit the shop and restaurant. Opening hours are 09:00 to 17:00 everyday with the last guided tour at 17.00. Admission is 100 Bt for adults and 50Bt for students. The address is 6 Soi Kasemsan 2, Rama 1 Road.

Chatuchak Weekend Market

This has been a Bangkok ‘must-see’ for years and it is still thriving. A few years ago a new air-conditioned high-rise building called JJ Plaza opened close by and although some stalls relocated there the old market is still operating and the adjacent Chatuchak Plaza still exists.

The scale of it is unbelievable. It covers 35 acres, contains more than 15 000 shops and stalls, and has over 200,000 visitors each weekend day. The range of products on sale is extensive, and includes household accessories, handicrafts, religious artifacts, art, antiques, live animals (which unfortunately are frequently caged in cruel conditions), books, music, clothes, food, plants and flowers etc.

Chatuchak has in theory been segregated into areas depending on the types of goods sold, and there are maps available for the market which detail the various sections. You’re as well to just forget them and just wander wherever takes your fancy, as it is an extremely disorientating place of many narrow alleys and trying to follow a map around can prove very frustrating.

Chatuchak always gets very hot and humid during the day, and it’s far from the most comfortable shopping experience but for most people the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. Going early in the day when it is a bit cooler is recommended. When it becomes too much, head for the airconditioned JJ Plaza (but expect prices to be higher).

Bargaining is expected, if not mandatory, at Chatuchak and the prices are generally substantially cheaper than the shopping centers and street stalls on Silom and Sukhumvit. Chatuchak is a particularly good place to buy all sorts of Thai handicrafts, as there’s a huge range, and competition keeps the prices low. Be careful when buying antiques though, as a large majority of these are fake and telling the difference between the genuine and the copies can be extremely difficult. Genuine antiques require a permit to be taken out of the country.

The published opening hours for the market are from 9.00am to 6.00pm on Saturday and Sunday, though many of the stalls actually open sometime between 9 and 10 and close around sunset. Parts of Chatuchak open on Friday while JJ Plaza and Chatuchak Plaza are pretty much open every day.

The best way to get here is on the Skytrain to Mo Chit station which is only about five minutes walk away from the market or by underground to Kamphaeng Phet station which has an exit directly to the market. Take plenty of cash (but ATM’s are there), comfortable shoes, bag(s), a good sense of humour, and don’t forget to drink water.

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Thought to Ponder

When reviewing her early years in Brooklyn, singing superstar Barbra Streisand said, “We were awfully poor, but we had a lot of things that money can’t buy — like unpaid bills.”

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For more information on Thailand see Experience Thailand an ebook available at www.amazon.com/kindle then search Len Rutledge.

Koh Samui Sightseeing — Thailand

Koh Samui was once a backpacker’s paradise. Now it is a paradise for those wanting a luxury beach resort experience. When visiting Koh Samui, however, you don’t have to just stay in your resort. There are several sightseeing attractions and things to do. While not spectacularly interesting, they provide enough variety for visitors. Here are three suggestions.

Elephant ride.

The elephant is Thailand’s national animal – a symbol of royalty and strength. Koh Samui has tropical rain forest in its centre and to travel through this verdant lushness on elephant back is to experience Thailand at its most natural. You will pass exotic fauna and flora, stop at refreshing waterfalls along the way and discover Samui in the most regal way possible.

You can meet the elephants near Namuang One waterfall. Many different tour operators organise guided elephant treks through the island’s tropical forests. Treks can last 15 minutes, half an hour, one hour or half a day, and each elephant has its own handler (“mahout”). These skilled “elephant drivers” are in charge of training, feeding and taking care of the animal, as well as riding the elephant with the “passengers” during the trek. A mahout normally stays with the elephant for its entire life and they form a very close bond with the animal.

Elephants are no longer used for work in the forests of Thailand and, therefore, for many animals, trekking guarantees their survival. It is always important, however, to make sure that the elephant looks healthy and seems well taken care of. If you don’t wish to ride the elephants, but simply want to spend time with them, buy some bananas from the handlers and feed and stroke the elephants. You may even be lucky and see a calf!

Asian elephants are smaller than the African ones, but are still quite large when fully grown. Usually there is a seat on top of the elephant, where one or two people can sit. The guide sits on the elephant’s neck. It’s a pretty bumpy ride and quite slow. Often the guide will let you sit on the elephant’s neck for a photo, and my wife was able to ride on the neck while the guide walked. The whole experience can cynically be called ‘touristy”, but I believe it is a good experience for all visitors who have not done this before. We took a 30-minute ride and frankly this is probably all most people need.

Several companies around the island run elephant ride operations and many can be booked through travel agents, often in combination with all day tours of the interior. Over fifty elephants call Samui home and all work in the tourist industry. Some companies take visitors up into the hills for magnificent views over the island, others go through waterfalls where riders run the risk of receiving a cooling shower. Chaweng Elephant Trekking (Tel. 077 231 210), Living Thailand (Tel. 077 418 680) and Island Safari Co (Tel. 077 230 567) are three companies that are well-known for tours but if you just want an elephant ride and you have your own transport you can make your way to the base near the Namuang 1 waterfall and negotiate a price there.

 Monkey displays.

On Koh Samui, the monkey undoubtedly qualifies as man’s best friend. This isn’t surprising, since for centuries the people here have used monkeys to do the hardest part of the work climbing to the trees to “pick the nuts” on their coconut plantations. Until the advent of tourism, coconuts represented the main industry here, so these industrious little animals were greatly prized. Whether man qualifies as the monkey’s best friend is another matter.

Today, to see the monkeys at work just watch out for signs at the roadside which say “Monkey work coconut” or go to the Monkey Theatre which offers shows in which the monkeys display their dexterity, and not just at picking coconuts.

What you think of the monkey show at the Monkey Theatre will depend on your attitude to animals. Some people will find it amusing and clever while others will be horrified by a male and a female monkey being made to carry out ridiculous demeaning tasks which are an insult to these creatures. The monkey show is followed by a coconut picking performance followed by an elephant show. For a small fee you may even ride bareback on the elephants. The Monkey Theatre has 3 shows each day — 10:30 to 12:00, 14:00 to 15:30 and 16:00 to 17:30. The theatre is located on the left, one street from the main road, when leaving Chaweng on the way to Bophut.  There are signposts pointing the way.

Even if you like the ‘show’, I think you will be disturbed to see the conditions in which the monkeys are kept. The monkeys are held in painfully small bare concrete cages that obviously hadn’t been cleaned in a very long time. Further down the line of cages were some older monkeys each in individual cages that were nothing short of prison cells with thick iron bars, concrete walls and a carpet of excrement. A couple of monkeys showed clear signs of distress by continuously rocking back and forth. As you approached each cage the monkeys would retreat to the back of their cages and cower, which suggests that they’re used to being badly treated. Frankly, this was enough for me and I would recommend that you don’t visit here.

If you decide not to go to the Monkey Theatre you will always be able to visit one of the numerous small “Monkey shows” which you will find on the roadsides for a few tens of baht. These mainly consist of monkeys trained to climb coconut trees and pick the coconuts. It is a pity to see these animals chained up but this is the way that they were treated when they were working the plantations. I’m sure that they would be much happier to be nowhere near here and free to live and play in the trees as they wished. Whether they have retained the instinct to gather their own food if they were free is something I don’t know.

Mummified Monk.

This is a well visited site which some people will consider rather strange. The body of Samui’s most famous mummified monk, Loung Por Daeng, is on display at Wat Khunaram, in a specially constructed building. When he died more than 30 years ago, he was sitting in a meditation position. He is still in that same position and his body shows few signs of any major decay.

There are several versions of his life story but I believe this one is basically correct. Loung Por Daeng was born in 1894, and was a well respected family man within the local community when he first became ordained as a monk when he was in his early twenties. He spent two years in Wat Samret before exiting and marrying a local lady with whom he had six children. Upon reaching fifty years of age, once his children were all grown up, Loung Por Daeng, decided to dedicate the latter part of his life to Buddhism and returned to the temples where he felt so at peace. He was ordained as a monk in 1944.

He then travelled to Bangkok where he spent some time studying and learning more about Buddhist texts and meditation, one of the great passions of his life. It is believed that upon returning to Koh Samui he went to meditate in a cave. Later he moved to Chaweng and was one of the first monks to stay in the location that nowadays is known as Wat Pang Bua. Following this, he decided to return to his family home, which was located just behind the current Wat Kunaram where the temple school is located.

It is said that two months before his death, at the age of 79 years, he requested the company of his students to inform them that he felt his death was imminent and wanted to instruct them as to his last wishes. He requested that should his body decompose that he be cremated and his ashes scattered. He went on to request that should his body not decompose, he would like to stay at the temple and be placed in an upright coffin on display as a symbol to inspire future generations to follow Buddhist teachings and be saved from suffering.

In his final seven days of mortal life, he no longer spoke to anyone or ate or drank anything, concentrating solely on his mediation and the path to enlightenment. He died a week later in the same position that we can see him sitting in nowadays. He’s in amazing condition considering he died about 40 years ago. The sunglasses he wears were placed on his head by the present monks when his eyes fell into his head, some years ago.

Wat Khunaram is on the coast ring road between the Na Muang waterfalls and Hua Thanon. Admission to the temple is free, but visitors are reminded to dress in modest clothing. There are souvenirs to purchase and meditation spaces.

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Something to Ponder.

Harry Truman, ex US President once said: I studied the lives of great men and famous women; and I found that the men and women who got to the top were those that did the jobs they had in hand, with everything they had of energy and enthusiasm and hard work.

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For more information on Thailand see Experience Thailand an ebook available at www.amazon.com/kindle then search Len Rutledge.

Ang Thong Marine National Park

Ang Thong National Marine Park is made up of 42 islands featuring limestone massifs, tropical rainforests and deserted beaches. This fascinating group of islands, within sight of Koh Samui, is a very popular day-tour destination for tourists. The area became a national park in 1980.

The typical Ang Thong National Marine Park one-day tour consists of ‘bits and pieces’ of activities and sightseeing. There is snorkelling, kayaking, sunbathing and sightseeing including a trek to a lake, a fisherman’s village and of course the beautiful scenery of the marine national park itself. Tours are operated by many companies, but from what I can tell, all do something very similar. Here are our experiences.

Snorkelling: Generally this was disappointing. The first place we went to was crowded with hordes of tourists. After we complained to the operator he moved to another place but the coral was not very colourful. There was some marine life including many kinds and sizes of fish, and some big sea urchins. The water depth around our boat was 3m to 6m so it was good for viewing. The snorkelling masks they lent us were well kept and not dirty or worn out but the life jackets were mouldy.

Sightseeing: Cruising through the national park itself was wonderful. The islands are fascinating and some of the beaches are spectacular. We also did a bit of climbing to see the view of the marine park from a hill then later climbed to see a beautiful lagoon surrounded by steep rain forested slopes.  This was the most crowded place we went on this tour. The climb to the lookout was steep but stairways had been made for tourists. This is where you need good footwear. Sandals are OK but those with straps are highly recommended.

Beaches: This was the setting for the eponymous ‘perfect’ beach in Alex Garland’s book so it was no surprise to find some really great stretches of sand. Most were clean and some were completely deserted.  Ang Thong was once home to a group of travellers who’d permanently dropped out of society. They’ve now moved on to Koh Pha Ngan, but Ang Thong remains as stunning as ever. Leonardo di Caprio, star of The Beach has probably never seen this place himself, since the movie was filmed in the Andaman Sea at Phi Phi Island rather than here because of technical reasons.

 Guide: The guide on the boat spoke English with a heavy accent and those who were not native English speakers found him hard to understand. Some of the European guests said they have the same problem in most places in Thailand.

Booking: You can book a tour on the internet before you leave home and some people said this was cheaper than booking it in Ko Samui. It is from 1700B for an adult and half this for a child on the net but this does not include the admission fee to the marine park which is 200B for an adult and 100B for a child. You can buy 1900B tours when in Ko Samui and this gives you the flexibility of seeing the weather conditions before you go out.

When: The better times to visit Mu Ko Ang Thong are between February and May inclusive as this is a period with no monsoon so the seas are calm for boating, yachting and diving and the water is clearest. From June to August it can be good one day but rough the next. In the monsoon season it rains regularly and heavy seas are often dangerous. We were there in September and the weather for part of the day was not great but the seas were not bad. I was told the National Park office closes during 1 November — 23 December every year.

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Thought to Ponder.

British philosopher Bertrand Russell was never one to mince words. He said, “The degree of one’s emotion varies inversely with one’s knowledge of the facts — the less you know the hotter you get.”

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For more information on Thailand see Experience Thailand an ebook available at www.amazon.com/kindle then search Len Rutledge.

Experience Guides — Northern Italy

This is the third guide in the Experience series.
We capture the personality and the underlying cultural and historical significance of the cities, regions and holiday destinations. Each is put into context by chapters on Essential Experiences in Northern Italy and the country’s History.

For the purposes of this book, we have defined Northern Italy as comprising the regions of:

Liguria with Genoa as its capital; Veneto with Venice as its capital; Northern Tuscany with Florence as its capital; Lombardy with Milan as its capital; Piedmont with Turin as its capital; Aosta Valley with Aosta as its capital; Emilia-Romagna with Bologna as its capital; Friuli-Venezia Giulia with Trieste as its capital; and Trentino-Alto Adige with Trento as its capital.

Northern Italy has a wide variety of topography and climate. The higher areas can be very cold in winter when snow covers everything and ski resorts do a roaring trade. In contrast the Mediterranean coast can be very hot in summer.

To purchase this book or see other books written by Len Rutledge go to the Amazon books web site and enter Len Rutledge.

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Point to Ponder.

Otto von Bismarck, the German statesman who dominated European affairs from the 1860s to 1890 had wide diplomatic experience. He once said, “When you say that you agree to a thing in principle you mean that you have not the slightest intention of carrying it out.”

Experience Guides — Thailand

Experience Travel Guides is a new series available in digital form. We plan the series to be unique in that each book is designed to be read in the same way as a novel. They are a valuable early-planning resource for those looking to visit a destination, a source of information for those just interested in finding out more about a country and a pleasure for those armchair travellers who just enjoy a good read.

Experience Thailand is the first Guide in this series. Initially published in 2011, it has since been updated twice so that it contains the latest information on the constantly changing Thai tourist scene.

We capture the personality and the underlying cultural and historical significance of the cities, regions and holiday destinations. We explore the wonderful beaches, travel the majestic northern mountains, meet hill-tribe village people, buy fascinating handicrafts, eat tantalizing cuisine, and enjoy fabulous massage. Each is put into context by chapters on Thai Life and the country’s History.

To purchase this book or see other books written by Len Rutledge go to the Amazon books web site and enter Len Rutledge.

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Point to Ponder.

A Thai husband whose wife no longer worked, came home one evening and found the house a complete mess. He exclaimed, “What happened?”

You’re always wondering what I do all day,” his wife said. “Well, here it is — I didn’t do it today.”

New Guide — Experience Norway

Experience Norway is book two in the Experience Guide series.

Experience Travel Guides are unique in that they are designed to be read in the same way as a novel. They are a valuable early-planning resource for those looking to visit a destination, a source of information for those just interested in finding out more about a country and a pleasure for those armchair travellers who just enjoy a good read.

Experience Norway highlights the more rewarding parts of the country so that those looking to visit can quickly and efficiently see if the destination is right for them and plan an itinerary. We locate and detail the best places to see and the top experiences to enjoy, and recommend accommodation options in all areas. All are based on the personal experience of the author.

We capture the personality and the underlying cultural and historical significance of the cities, regions and holiday destinations. Each is put into context by chapters on Norwegian Life and the country’s History.

Norway is one of the most scenically beautiful countries in the world. Few countries offer as many opportunities for great outdoors sightseeing and activities. With fjords, glaciers, mountains, magnificent valleys, museums, the beguiling Northern Lights and fascinating cultural activities, Norway has something for everyone.

To purchase this guide and to see other books from Len Rutledge