Thursday, 10 November 2011

Adventures in North-Eastern Thailand.

From September 2010

My first stop outside Bangkok and on my way up north, was a detour west for a break with Angelina in Kanchanaburi.

Kanchanaburi has a population of 50,000 and was originally established by King Rama I in the 1700s as a first line of defence against the Burmese. It is located where the Khwae Noi and Khwae Yai rivers converge into the Mae Klong.

In 1942 about 180,000 Asian labourers and 60,000 Allied POWs were forced by the Japanese to built the Burma Thailand Railway. Almost half the workforce died from the appalling conditions they were forced to work under; hence it’s other name: The Death Railway. It was made famous by the book and film The Bridge on the River Kwai. The immortalised Bridge 277 lies over the river at Kanchanaburi, and the railway tracks at this place have become a tourist memorial of the horrors of World` War II.

Half a century later, the surrounding area is tranquil and beautiful and the river is lined with plush resorts, hostels and campsites catering to the wide range and number of tourists that visit. Angelina and I decided to go pay our respects too, on our first weekend getaway from working in Bangkok.

We grabbed a slice of luxury at the brand new Dheva Mantra Resort, and cashed in on the peacefulness of being the only guests. As a hotel it got a 10 out of 10 from both of us for everything from it’s situation on the banks of the River Kwai, to the fab rooms and service. 

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The bridge itself is located about 1km downstream from the hotel, so we hired ourselves a canoe and saw the bridge and railway from the water underneath; happily separated from the hordes of tourists wandering around on the tracks above. If you’re comfortable on water and have the energy, I totally recommend this as the best way to see the bridge and experience the area. You really get to soak it in, and especially upstream of the bridge you’re the only people on or around the water.

Death Railway Bridge over the River Kwai

Canoeing down the River Kwai Pagoda at Wat Thawonwararam just downstream from the Bridge

Angelina returned home to KL from Kanchanaburi and I carried on with the journey through Thailand, moving North with one of the rice farming projects I met up with in BKK. There had been a rice Expo in Bangkok while I was there and I was connected with Somruay Phadpol who founded and runs an integrated farming project in the Nan province. We had an illuminating conversation and he asked if I’d be willing to travel up to the Nan province to help with some of the challenges he was facing.

So off I went, 700km on a night bus to Nan. 10 hours of light and movies and music at a time when all I wanted to do was sleep. It’s always daytime on Thai buses!

My chaperone up to Nan was an Ashoka staff member, but my guide and translator was Phimonphan Sakitram, also known as Pang. Through Pang I got to experience the real life of Thailand, from really early morning starts and heavy breakfasts, to Thai coffee, bug fighting and crispy fried maggot snacks.

Pang getting me introduced to local iced coffee

Nan:

The city of Nan dates back to the 14th century, when it was one of the 9 northern Thai-Lao principalities of the Lanna Kingdom a.k.a the Kingdom of a Million Rice Fields. Elements of Lanna architecture are still common in small details like on the roofs of the wooden houses and stilt constructions that dominate the rural areas.

Lanna architectural detail Wooden Stilt Construction

Towns in the Nan Province Town main street in the Nan Province

Like most of Thailand, the Nan province has great roads. Much of Thailand was rebuilt with American help and investment after the Vietnam War, and the infrastructure reflects the quality that comes with newer techniques. Nevertheless it’s strange to see poor villages with wooden houses that don't 
even have glass, scattered around fantastic first-world roads.

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The city centre of Nan itself reminded me of Puerto Montt in Chile. A hardworking intersection of shops, with tangles of electric lines streaming across and down the main roads.

Nan City Centre Nan City Centre
The monsoon kicks in between August and October, and floods are common across Thailand. This year as I’m sure you know, they’ve been unusually bad. More than 500 people have died already in Thailand and the number keeps going up. My friends in Thailand tell me that most of the severe flooding is in central Thailand, and those in Nan have been spared the worst of it. The international community needs to step in and do their bit with support in the form of donations to flood relief programs. As mentioned in my last post, the official routes to help are listed here - http://www.bangkokpost.com/feature/charities/203275/information-for-flood-donation

Floods in the Nan Province last year Floods in the Nan Province last year

The rainy season also brings the Nan Boat races. There are usually about 150 boats involved. Each boat is made of five pieces crafted from a single tree, and have ornate Dragon Heads and Tails. Interestingly the names all start with angel. When not engaged in races, the boats are kept at temples, and Monks manage and repair the boats, and perform a small ceremony on each before the race.

The smallest boats have a crew of 30, going up to 50 or 60 for the mid-sized boats and 80 rowers for the largest boats. Each community can race one of each. Men and women race on separate days. The races are grouped by boat size, and the Winner gets presented a trophy by Princess Siritorn. Last year they had 200 boats. Wooden paddles. Old boats used to have high curved  ends but now flat and long for speed and advantage at the finish.

Boat awaiting the festivities on the Nan River.

The Boat Race. Much excitement and festivities Crews practising

The rain is also crucial for rice production which is widespread across Thailand. Away from the flooding, September landscapes look lush and green with rice fields everywhere you turn.

Rice paddies in Northern Thailand, with an experimentation plot in the foreground Farmer spraying pesticides on rice

Nan is also well known for an unusually high number of temples. There are 20 temples in the city. One for every community. Regardless of the poverty in their areas, temples remain bright and gold and red, often with ornate plaster facades designed to look like cloth banners. They are beautifully maintained and well topped up with local donations. The good temples pour the money back into their communities, while others just soak up the money.

Out of the many, I visited one of the most famous: Wat Phumin. Outside, the steps are flanked by two huge snakes, known as Nagas. Inside are superbly preserved murals of illustrating the previous births of the Buddha as well as scenes of the local life at the time of restoration in the 1800’s.

Naga. Wat Phumin, Nan, Thailand Even the monks are Golden

P1090867 Four Buddhas in the Sukothai style. Apparently the shape of the ears and nose show a Lao influence.

Murals inside Wat Phumin Murals inside Wat Phumin

Thailand is well known for it’s food, and the North East is no exception. Being near the water means it’s all about seafood. Everything was super tasty and spicy, and served with rice. Loved it!

Taken out for dinner along the river by the Joko team after a late workshop

Spicy Tom Yum Goong Sesame fried fish

Breakfast is proper food too. Something that takes getting used to if you’re foreign. Eating noodles, fried meat or any other meal that usually qualifies as lunch or dinner is tough going at 7am if you’ve grown up eating toast and cereal! Even eggs don’t really prepare you. I have to admit I struggled, but a man’s gotta eat, and you take what’s on offer. In the end I found noodle soups to be the way forward. Rice with meat and fried vegetables was usually too much for my half-asleep body!

Local restaurant near my accommodation Breakfast. 

Projects

My travel destinations are always dictated by the projects that invite me there, and Thailand was no exception. Most of time in Nan was spent working with an organisation called Joko, focused on improving quality of life for rice farmers in the region. They were already working with about 4000 farmers and were facing a range of survival and scaling challenges. But that’s a story for a dedicated post on the various projects I was involved with in Thailand. Coming up after a final travelogue on my travels in North Western Thailand.

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