After breakfast with the Germans. I meet up with Echo who works at the hostel for our planned hike. First we have to get across the river li by ferry and the ferryman tries to charge me 5rmb when the local rate is 2. He doesn’t really have a leg to stand on when Echo has just paid 2, but still complains and argues for 10 minutes as we are waiting to depart. On the opposite bank we are met by her friend (and this girl’s friend, plus a puppy) who works in a guest house next to the limestone mountains, surrounded by a peaceful garden where they grow all their vegetables. She gives us a lift in an electric motorbike 3-wheeler with a flat bed trailer. It’s a very bumpy ride and we have to get out and push the flimsy vehicle out of a puddle. After dropping off our transport we begin the walk through farms and orchards of huge pomeloes, towel gourds, golden oranges (these smaller than a ping pong ball, green skin, orange flesh), past pig sties and chicken houses, farmers driving cows. It’s very local, slow and quiet on this side of the river. We are hailed by younger girl of about 17 on a bicycle with her 3 year old brother. She tells us that they are making ginger toffee. This involves boiling up sugar and ginger to make a sticky paste which the gnarly old guy stretches and pulls and twists on a bench. It’s then pulled into strips and as it quickly hardens is snipped into bite size pieces by the family. They also make sweets from their own sesame seeds and peanuts. The walk is hot and eventually the path peters out in front of a sheer cliff face. In spite of Echo’s calls and reference pics sent to the colleague back at the hostel we cannot find the right way and have no choice but to descend. It’s amazing the little boy has made it this far completely willing and untiring, the only problem being his losing his tiny blue flipflop which keeps slipping off and needs to be retrieved. At the bottom we become 3 and adopt a backup plan which is to walk along the river to an evocative cave temple. The cave in question having no illumination save for 3 oil lights at an altar. My friends immediate reaction is to use the flashlight on their phones to guide them, but I insist we enter and acclimatise. It is so still and quiet in there. We take a rest and eat some noodles at Echo’s friend’s ghostly guesthouse then head back before 3 when I go to bed for a few hours. Exhausted from the head, and probably our exertions.
The old quarter, which consists of 4 streets, packs up early evening as the tourists have all gone home. The streets are returned to the residents. Loud shrieking kids running up and down. Families, doors open having dinner. Each house has a plain concrete or stone floor with the living room at the front, revealed through open wooden doors. Each contains simple low stools, a table and a huge tv. This is on in every house usually with the sound turned down. I guess it serves as wallpaper. Nobody is actually watching it. I’m glad the TVs are turned down. The chatter of countless TVs from open doors would be hideous. Some houses display a poster of Mao on their wall. Older people sit in the darkness on their front steps, bare chested men chat in hushed voices.
I can’t accept that guy’s views on meritocracy, and if this is the reality, so much for so-called communism. Even though his father is a cook, his mum does the cooking at home. Makes no sense really. There is a noticeable division of labour in Xingping. The women man (how did this verb originate) the handicraft stalls and sell the vegetables, fruit, chickens. The men are the delivery and tuk tuk drivers. They are the ones who sit in the shade smoking and playing cards. I’ve taken a lot of pics of kids. It’s just occurred that kids are much more visible here than in the uk. Is that a consequence of climate, perceptions of safety among strangers- it’s interesting that mothers are quite into me taking pics of their little ones, even though they might personally turn their head away. Could you imagine that in uk? Imagine the protests, anger and controversy. It’s also nice to see that mobile culture hasn’t permeated society here, and there is definitely no Pokemon go.
The town is lovely and still at 7am. In fact I almost tiptoe through the alleys as people are waking up and throwing open their wooden doors. As I have breakfast I notice a sudden change. Enter the groups of colour coded baseball caps, at their head is a guide carrying a same coloured little pennant. This how the Chinese do tourism. Straight to the river, maybe snapping pics of guesthouse a on the way, ignoring the locals, getting a generic boat trip, buying a generic souvenir, group lunch then back on the bus.
My morning is spent poking around the market again. Here’s a sight from there.
The li wan hu park. I’m feeling existential.
Little girl peeing in the bushes. Lily pond pavilion closed almost derelict. Man takes off shirt paces up the gangplank swinging and clapping his hands. He does this warm up several times then proceeds to place his stretched leg on the 1.5m high rail and then bend from the waist so god head meets his foot. Impressive. Flanked by tower blocks but neighboured by pitiful almost slums. Chicken cages and suspicious locals sitting on their steps. Leading up to the park I’ve encountered much more friendly locals who wave as I take their pics. Clusters of men playing cards, smoking, laughter and noisy banter, seated on sheets of newspaper. Old men reading, yes reading. A small boy on a skateboard that had single wheels. Some kind of youth volunteer group cheering and doing a photo call. Cantonese music coming from somewhere. The drone of the traffic. Sulphurous smelling lake. Banyan trees with dangling roots. Some kind of colourful diarama floating in the middle of the lake. A man in a conical hat on a canoe frisking out weed with a net on a pole. A jogger bare chested, green shorts, bouncing rather than running. An dropped black and white baseball cap with roxy in blue and red letters. A father kicks it, his 3 year old son stamps on it. Passers by regard it, walk deliberately step over it but avoid picking it up, as if it is a dead pigeon or something one cannot engage with. Touching it means having to decide what to do with it. It’s someone else’s property. Maybe picking it up is the beginning of theft. Kids on bikes with stabilisers. Middle aged women with Chinese style permed hair. Bright patterned smock like blouses which neither flatter nor provoke. Couples who do not hold hands. Dusk and the twittering of hidden birds. Finally a 2 year old picks up the cap, but when admonished by his 14 year old brother tosses it high over his head and runs after him. This cap fascinates me. Scores of people have passed it by. I have decided to at least give the cap dignity by setting it on the bin. Perhaps the owner will find it again. Red traditional lanterns are lit up on the brown wooden restaurant pavilions by the water. Some kind of squelchy squwak from the bushes. A duck? Fish and lily light sculptures on the water. Tiny yellow leaves are falling on my head. Airliners, car horns, sounds of a train perhaps. The smell of the water, or is it the air is noxious.
Two rather sad robotic claw machines branded with Mickey Mouse but the toys imprisoned in the glass box are minions rip ifs and Paddington bear type things. The music is quite haunting. The 3 toy story machines next door ate battered, empty of toys, and just contain pieces of polystyrene. The lights are off. Maybe these once gave children joy. A woman on a baseball hat branded with the word black sits nearby reading her phone. She has been here for a while. She must dream this music. There is a whiff of melancholy here. The gangplank to the sedentary pleasure boats with their plastic flower covered roofs is made of old finger signs to locations around the park.
Three girls and 2 boys are attracted to the machines and jiggle the joysticks. The one in the stripes feeds in a coin but drops it under the machine. He goes off to get his mums handbag and rummages for some coins in vain. He asks me for some change, but I can’t help. They are excitable and friendly. He playfully kicks the machine. The mothers come along and chorus hello then bye bye. They don’t manage to work the machine and drift off.
In a pleasant square in the fading light under some shady trees groups of young adults play badminton and hacky sack. Men with small dogs sit in the approaching gloom.
I can’t get the aircon to the right temperature, but anyway it’s cooler than outside. I want to get up early and see the city coming to life. On my street corner are the 21st century bare chested coolies, sitting and squatting, by the kerb, smoking and waiting to be called into action. There seems to be a thriving industry in sorting and collecting recyclables. Bicycles are used as delivery vehicles. I see 12 or so water tanks strapped to one. The little hutongs are atmospheric and historical. Homes to sleepy old people who stare impassively when I greet them. I do exchange a few words with a lady packing up her breakfast stall and offer to send her my photos of her. Another old guy asks me where I’m from. The rest look bemused and I’m not sure if this is guarded hostility for venturing into their shady streets bedecked with strings of laundry. There is a market stall selling chickens freshly slaughtered, a little show through whose curious Windows I peer. It is plastered with amateurish water colours of flowers and writing practice sheets. Inside seated on one side of a long table are two little girls diligently drawing as a youngish man with a white goatee points between an arrangement of vegetables and some sketches he is making pinned to the wall. A lady stands behind the girls and guides their movements. Evidently they are in a still life drawing class. An older man opens the door, I’m thinking to remonstrate, but he invites me in. I politely decline. Could be a bit awkward. Some people don’t mind being photographed. The coolies do, as does the furniture restorer sanding a chair on the street as his caramel coloured poodle sits in attendance.
I’m having lunch at zen again. This time it’s heaving and full of lively chatter. Bitter melon soup and fried noodles with bean curd skin.
The route here takes me past countless little stores selling refrigeration parts, copper piping, hardware type stuff. That reminds me of the neighbourhood near Mong kok where all the little shos sold paint and decorating stuff. These kinds of places would have vanished decades ago as the diy mega store took over in uk.
The guan xiao si temple next door is week worth a visit and seems to be more monastery than temple. The garden is pretty and peaceful. On the hall of the sleeping Buddha a meditation chant has begun, primarily led by black and brown robed women, some men as well. They are not monks as they wear grey and nuns shave their heads. The chanters walk in a clockwise direction snaking in and out of the rows of cushions they squatted on and circling the reclining Buddha in the hall. Two ladies one clinking a bell, the other tapping a block, lead the way. This lasts at least 40 minutes and seems quite joyous. Outside I listen and watch. A 4 year old boy copies his mother and circumflexes.
I want to get somewhere else, but the hutongs and their rich source of image delay me. Finally I get the metro to yuexiu park and visit the museum of the mausoleum of the second nanyue King zhao wen. It’s a kind of pyramid covering the excavated 2000 year old tomb. This was discovered only in 1983 as the hill it was secluded in was being levelled for housing. The museum contains fabulous jade artefacts from the tomb, which fortunately had never been pillaged. This is the suit he was buried in.
A thunder storm is brewing and I hit the streets and explore. Cities have a sense of urgency in the rain and figures sheltering under umbrellas reflected on the glistening neon lit pavements are an enticing sight. I’m hoping I will get a bit lost once I’m past the hospital and climb over a flyover, but there is something vaguely familiar. It’s the plumbing shops. Somehow I’ve made a direct line back to my familiar neighbourhood. I’ve walked a lot and sweated a lot. Time for a beer.
I wonder if anyone is reading this. Leave me a comment!
Om's house seems to be a social hub, and I spend a clue of hours there after visiting monkey temple, city shrine, and the vege restaurant. I meet Petra, a German physiotherapist who is into cycling. Our paths cross several times later when I cycle out to wat ao noi. The conversations are backgrounded by the incessant on-repeat Christmas tunes from next door. Wat ao noi is out beyond the fishing villages and amid the extensive fish breeding pools. The cave temple with the two reclining Buddhas is nothing special, but the climb up through bourgainvillia and cacti is beautiful. The adjacent main temple building is also noteworthy, being made of dark wood and having a surrounding terrace encircled by spectacular entwined naga.
The evening takes shape when JJ invited peter and me to her friend's itaLiam restaurant. It's our Christmas party, replete with snowman deely boppers, and gifts for James, her son, and her friend's daughter. Funny how asian kids are so much more endearing than British ones. The ravioli and tiramisu aren't bad, but vastly overpriced. The conversation is animated and joyful.
Back in the seafront the tide has gone out, revealing a beach. We stop in the tuk-tuk to chat to some friends. And there I teach James some vocab. When I set off home alone along the promenade he runs after me and onto the beach, where I go for a last gasp if air. We high five several times before I go off to bed for a long looked forward to sleep.
Ning and co come and pick me up at 7.45 to take me to the class at the uni. It's raining.
They tell me the students will be so surprised, and excited. The uni is about 8 miles out of the city, at the foot of a mountain (which freshers climb, believing conquering it will enable them to graduate). At the far end of the entrance driveway is a massive seated Buddha.
This is the university of communication studies. I meet the vice dean, who is a northerner and an ex-well-known radio dj. She also shows gratitude for my coming and wishes her students to swell the size of the group to over 50.
We have to remove shoes, both teachers and students. The classroom is quite formal in layout and has a raised wooden stage and a framed portrait of the king at the teacher's end. Students are in uniform, though rather scruffily, of white shirt and black trousers/skirt. They are a rag-tag bunch. Pretty little girls, some with powdered white faces and finely plucked eyebrows. Callow boys with moustaches and open top buttons. Some Muslim girls with head scarves, a rather ballsy loud girl with a top knot, brimming with personality and playing to the teachers and crowd. The teacher uses a microphone, which seems somehow to create a distance between her and the class. She greets them in English and is replied by a clumsy chorus. It's difficult and slow to manage the class into small groups, and I don't think they, or the teacher are used to this more dynamic and interactive pattern. The vision was that the students would ask me questions… I get involved in setting up how this could work. Smaller groups. Time to prepare….
Their English is mostly quite poor. They have trouble constructing questions. In the end most manage to ask me my name. The girls want to know if I'm married. The boys get energised when we talk about football. Their are some odd questions: ” do you think x is a hermaphrodite?” !!! ” what is your motto?” (I have to think, but end up with some cliche that they might understand : life is short, so enjoy it..). Anyway I have a lot of fun chatting to them,but I'm not convinced they learnt very much. At. The end there was a surprise. One of the girls stood up and made a speech she had written, expressing the class's appreciation for my coming. Then 3 girls, one with a ukulele, sandy a song in English..something like ” we hope you enjoyed the show”. This was followed by 3 more girls (never the boys) singing and doing a little dance in thai, led by the flamboyant girl. Later I Learn that in her interview for the uni, she stated that her ambition was to be a star!
After lunch we visit the teacher' s house. Very impressive. Just build, airy, spacious. Contains a shrine. Ning says I should drive her car to trang, rather than her. Well, my first time driving a car in Thailand, first time diving an automatic…not a big deal, but the weather is dreadful. Heavy rain, pools of water on the road. By the time we get to tang the rain is easing, but I'm still unsure of what to do. Go to libong, another island, stay in tang City, go elsewhere….amazingly, although I've only been ther once, I'm able to easily navigate us to the centre and the place where I can get some concert info about the weather and the availability of accommodation and of transfers to the islands. I make up my mind to go back to ko muk. We get some fruit and set off, then down comes the rain. I sense Ning thinks this is a bad idea, though she won't actually say so. She mentions getting a train somewhere. I pull over and check my train timetable. There's a train going north in an hour. I have to make a decision, now or never. We go back to the station and I get a sleeper to hua hin, basically because anywhere else would mean arriving in the middle of the night, or be too close to bkk.
I get an Indian meal to eat on the train, and Ning and I finally say goodbye. She drives back to hat Yai,and I settle into a peaceful ride and a sleep, I hope. However the guy in the next seat strikes up a conversation. He is a flabby, stinky American called mike. Turns out he is a psychology professor at a bkk uni. He. Smells of booze, and eventually he lets on that the clear liquid in his bottle is whisky, and it smells quite surgical. He offers me a nip. It's strong, and I can see now he is a bit pissed. Later he tells me he enjoyed talking with me, thinks I'm a smart guy. It's funny how so many people seem to latch onto me and want to tell me their life story, which he does. It's full of conspiracy, hardship, fighting court cases, being branded a terrorist by his family for expunging anti- American views. He feels in-American, despises the place and the people,and has lived in Cambodia and now thai land for 20 years or so. Something he tells me is quite creepy. It's about the murde of the. British tourists. He says he knows who e killer was, and that this person is high up and connected to the royals. This person is a student at his uni,. Nothing will be proven against him. Conspiracy, cover-up, scapegoating of the burmese workers. Hearsay….
I sleep until 3.30. Get off at hua hin at 4.20.
Nearly any rain, at least not until nighttime.
I spent today with Ning, an old student from Regency, and her old school friend and husband who are both university teachers. The deal is I teach a lesson with them tomorrow, and they drive me around the city today and lavish me with lunch, tea and dinner. It's a really nice day and I get to learn and appreciate things I wouldn't be able to do as a solo farang with no thai language. We make merit at the temple, which is considers the most important in southern Thailand. The white stupa allegedly contains yet another of the buddha's teeth. The gilded spire obviously isn't golden as corrosion stains drip on the white plaster work. Unfortunately the walkway around the stupa is closed, but we burn joss sticks (3 for the Buddha; 9 for the God, which we do at the city shrine later) and candles which get snuffed out by the breeze before we have time to kneel and plant them in the ash trough in the boat alter. We have little scraps of gilding, which we transfer to the Buddha effigies. Mine blow away, rather then cling. My merit is hard to. Achieve. Out of the sudden rain, we walk a cloister like passage where there is a large gong. None of us succeed in making it resonate. This is done by caressing 2 raised knobs. One woman coaxes a tremendous ringing tone from it. Wow.
We visit the city museum, which has some rather amusing dioramas, including one of a thai school room with a projected animate school teacher. There is a a big freize on which is written the 60 commandments that school children must learn these days. It's a bit much. Ning comments that the first commandment which is basically “do good things” suffices.
Afterwards we go to the city shrine for more merit making, and then to the remains of the city wall. On the city park nearby old and young, slim and not so slim alike exercise on the open-air communal gym-type equipment, though it feels more like a dangerous kids playground. On the field groups of men are playing a kind of keepy-uppy game involving a hollow rattan ball and bare feet.
A shared meal together is great: when you eat alone you can't possibly order so many dishes. Equally being with Thais, they are able to specify exactly what they want cooked. We have egg and bitter cucumber, a Chinese mushroom soup, broad beans and green beans in a spicy sauce, and a very hot tofu in yellow bean curry paste.
14 hours of train to get here, and now I'm having a few days off!
The city is exclusively Thai. Barely a sign in English, and I've only seen 2 non-Asian faces. There is a Chinese presence, however. Finding vege food except for fruit and banana fritters is proving a bit tricky. My hotel is like a luxury business hotel, with huge room and an expansive view from my 9th floor window, but the prices the cheapest I've paid for so far! The hotel is on Alitalia market lane and on the corner of the main drag. There isn't much going on. It's quite quiet here. I have managed to explore about 4 blockes, as I've been held back by the bursts of heavy rain, that's been causing flooding in the province, and which was evident from the train. It's been great for photography, so I'm quite happy!
No digital departure boards.
No branded refreshment franchise, just a soporific store selling cheap cakes, drinks, pot noodles.
Station master rings a brass bell hanging over the platform.
Control room full of 1960s looking signal machinery.
Analogue clock on the wall. Doesn't matter if it tells the right time as the train runs at thai time and comes. When it wants. In this case approx 1 hour late. Military uniforms, neat and clean station, but certainly not run like clockwork.
A toilet staffed by a garishly made up woman sitting behind a counter with tv, carpet on the floor, lounging husband in football shirt. 3 baht for a pee.
Potted ferns in ornamental pots. A 2 metre portrait of the king in ceremonial regalia flanked by the yellow royal flag and the red blue white thai flag.
The platform is open to all and is a place where mothers hang out with young children. Families stroll over the lines to the food stalls on the other side.
Porters pile up stacks of cardboard boxes and what looks like bull bars wrapped in paper ready to be loaded on the next train.
I don't care if it's late. Waiting at a thai station is quite relaxing.