Something For The Weekend Sir?

The only problem with going away for a long time is that it becomes necessary to have things done that you normally have someone you trust to do. I refer , of course, to having your haircut.

After 3 months of hoping to get away with not having to do it my shaggy dog look finally began to embarass even me. So I had to do something about it and started to look on line about getting an haircut in Saigon.

I should explain we have now left Phu Quoc and yesterday we flew back up to Saigon. Phu Quoc was good but the lack of variety in the food gradually takes it’s toll on you and you begin to dread seeing another squid for the rest of your life. So it was back to the city and then on Wednesday we head off to the mighty Mekong River up to Cambodia and to the capital Phonm Pehn before returning here for their New Year.

There was plenty of info on getting an haircut in Saigon. That is of the cutting variety not being ripped off of which there was much more. Most of the hair cutting stuff was horror stories by visitors and expats about their experience of trying to get a vaguely decent cut at the hands of a Vietnamese who was used to cutting or hacking locals hair.

The locals and many expats use what is called a chop house which is sometimes a place with a roof over it but more often a chair and an awning set up on the pavement which in Saigon is rarely used for pedestrians who get in the way of all the other things going on on them. This is one chop house I saw yesterday

Chop House Barber

quite a salubrious  joint you might be thinking but let me just say the customer on the right had a fine head of hair before the guy got going on him !!

The thing going for them is they cost about 25,000 dong (70P) but you have no idea whether the guy has ever cut hair before and the trouble with hair cutting is when it is done it is done there is no sticking it back on.

My problem is that living in Italy it is almost impossible not to find a good barber. It is normally more a choice about how close to the house is he, can you park outside and how good is the coffee he offers you. The haircutting is a given, he will be brilliant at it and the whole thing is just a superb experience.

The internet consensus  was that Just Men was the place to go which suited me anyway as it was near the bar I wanted to watch football at that evening. Two birds with one stone I hoped.

In fact Just Men had already disappeared but had been replaced by this shop on the same site.

My Haidressing Shop

In I went and was immediately put in a chair. My hairdresser had the strangest hair style I have seen rather short at the sides and standing almost on end on the top as if he had seen a ghost. However once we had established such a style was not for me he proceeded sheepishly to cut. It was slow work and every 2 minutes he would ask if that was okay. Unfortunately I wear glasses so peering into the mirror I was unable to see what he was up to anyway. The blind leading the blind. Half an hour went by and nothing seemed to have changed up top other than an awful lot of water had been squirted on my hair. Still he snipped slowly and still I encouraged him to be a little bolder. After 45 mins I gave up and agreed it was superb, never seen my hair looking better. He beamed, I beamed and then he asked for 235,000 dong. Clearly I was paying by the minute not by the cuttings on the floor. However by then the game had started and my beer was going warm on the counter. I paid what must have been a kings ransom to him and fled.

Actually it isn’t that bad and by next week I should be able to take my hat off and show the world my cut. I am dreading going back to Italy and facing my barber Franco who is going to create merry hell about it.

I mentioned earlier about the uses the Vietnamese have for their pavements. The biggy is to park their motorbikes on . Not I hasten to add willy nilly style. Oh no these are organised lots. They have several attendants and you pay to park on a public pavement. They park them for you and when you come back you pay and the attendant rushes off and gets you bike and wheels it to you. It’s just that it is on the pavement

Bike Parking Lot

Almost every street pavement looks just like this. Long rows of parked bikes. The attendants who all wear uniform also use the space between the kerb and the back wheel to have all their meals on. They set up small chairs and charcoal grills and cook Hot Pot and noodles seemingly every hour or so. It never amazes me how much these guys seem to eat. If it rains they have cardboard to cover the saddles and likewise if the sun is on them.

I just keep thinking what is going to happen in Saigon when all these people graduate from a bike to a car.

All Quiet

In case your worried that is snow falling on the blog and not a problem with your eyes. I can jazz up the site for Christmas. Apparently I can even add Christmas songs to it but have resisted that at the moment.

No protests today as the protesters decided that they would help clean up the areas where the they have been active near government buildings. It is all to do with the King’s birthday tomorrow and both sides seem eager to not offend him . So it will all start again on friday by which time we should be long gone. Still it has certainly livened up the past couple of days.

Whilst up in Chiang Mai and staying at the Opium Apartments I had some trouble getting this laptop to link with the hotel internet. Luckily there were an army of people staying there who were eager to help and eventually a South African lad Jerry got it all worked out for me. He had just spent 4 months in Vietnam  and advised me to get a booster for the internet signal as many hotels there have lousy signals. An American lad Zac who works at Best Buy as a computer salesman told me it is all to do with the number of routers the hotel installs. Good ones put a couple on each floor poor ones hardly any at all. Each router can run so many customers and then rejects the rest or gives them lousy connectivity . I have to say it all goes over my head but having had problems throughout Thailand I thought I should get a booster.

Bangkok is awash with computer places. The biggest is the MBK Centre with floors and floors of shops selling anything you need. Nearby is the Siam Discovery Centre, the Siam Centre and the Siam Paragon . All these malls are almost dedicated to the I.T. industry as well as having tons of DVD and CD copies as well.

However they are all near the protest area in fact they are on the road where all the tear gas and rubber bullets were fired over last weekend. Well worth a miss I thought. so instead I went to the Fortune Town Mall well away from the troubles and six stops on the metro from Si Lom .

Well I don’t know about the others but this one was four floors full of I.T. stuff. The only drawback was that almost no one spoke english and sign language for an internet booster with an ariel challenged even my charades game expertise. Sound like, 5 words, first word etc. Still i am now the proud owner of a Tenda booster with a very smart ariel. I ‘m not sure it does anything but boy I look suitable geeky now.

I was also looking for a Jawbone Jambox mini as I can’t get my iPod music on to this new MacBook Air . In fact no one had the new one which gets rave revues on Amazon.co.uk . They haven’t arrived yet over here but I did get an exact copy of one made by OnBeat.

The papers here cover today the Transparency International corruption survey. Thailand didn’t come out of it too well ranked 102 out of 177 ( least corrupt at the top and most at the bottom). The problem here seems to be mainly the political parties and the police as being the most corrupt.

Dear Italy comes in at 69 and there the survey shows people believe that almost all the corruption is with political parties, politicians and parliament. Perhaps surprisingly the only other body considered very corrupt are the medical services most especially the doctors. Only 47% of people agree with Il Cavaliere Berlusconi that the Judges are corrupt.

The UK by the way was at number 14.

So we are ready to move on tomorrow. Another travel day for us .

Bus, Plane, Taxi

Travel day today. We drove the 3 hours back down to Chiang Mai from the Mea Kok River Resort and headed to the airport.

Any lingering thoughts of Chiang Mai as a sleepy northern town were dispelled by the 6 lane highway complete with under passes and fly overs to the airport. With 8 feeder lanes running alongside it it is bigger than the motorway in from the main airport in Bangkok. How soon before we see a sky train here?

Air Asia surprised us again by offering food and drink this time slowly wheeling a trolley the length of the aircraft. Michael O’Leary of Ryanair would be tearing his hair out at the lack of sales technique but at least you could buy a drink if you wanted.

There is now almost a half hourly service between Chiang Mai and Bangkok. Air Asia have been joined by Nok Air and another new entrant Lion ( check them out by clicking here ). A couple we met in Chiang Mai last week had just bought their tickets on Lion for US$15 each including taxes for the week after next.  Nok Air have cleverly at Bangkok grabbed the internet rights at the terminal and so you need a booking number on them if you want to connect while waiting at the Low Cost Airport here ( it’s the old airport that closed and then re-opened in 2010 ).

The taxi into town took 25 mins to the Siri Sathorn and even though we passed the Ministry of Energy we saw no protesters. Disappointingly there was no visible security at the airport when we left it . In 2008 protesters seized it and held it for 3 weeks forcing people to trains, buses and ferries to get to an airport in another country to get home.

I will be checking out a few happy hours in the area around the hotel to pick up any news on how things are going and let you know.

I booked an early morning call for 7.30 this morning at The Maekok Resort and at 7.40 the guy was knocking on the door to collect the bags ! Now there’s speedy packing but that was expecting quite a lot considering the car was booked for 9 a.m.

Bryan was on parade to wave us goodbye and told me Christmas week they are full to the gills. Having seen it struggle with 26 of us quite how they handle 72 I have no idea. Still the school was quite something.

Nice Weather for Ducks

The Germans and two other small groups left yesterday after breakfast so today it was good to go back to a menu instead of the buffet that had been on offer for two days during their stay.

I’m not a great lover of buffets myself. Too many sales conferences and Travel Agent functions over the years as well as when at Thomas Cooks visiting loads of all inclusive hotels throughout the Caribbean ( tough life but someone had to do it).

Firstly I tend to get greedy and take more than I ever intended and more importantly there is always a nagging feeling as to how long it has all been hanging around in those big containers with little candles underneath them keeping them tepidly warm .

Most non inclusive hotels tried to get away from buffet breakfast for similar reasons. They could better control customers and costs by controlling what went on the plate. Lots of people me included tend to look at a breakfast buffet where no other meal is included in the cost as a way of saving on lunch and therefore bring commodious bags to breakfast to load up with stuff to eat at lunchtime. Hardly what the hotel had in mind when it thought it might save the cost of a few staff. These guys have yet to learn that lesson and especially when here labour is one of their lowest costs whereas boat loads of american bacon isn’t.

The weather that was bad  yesterday decided to show it’s ugly side today as some Chinese high pressure system sweeps through from the east. Buckets of rain all night and all through the day today . I found a place to sit undercover and started on my third book since we got here on the trusty Kindle and thank god. The books people have left here are clearly ones they just didn’t want at all and dumped. I said yesterday that with over 20 people the Resort couldn’t cope but let me add in the rain there is nothing to do at all except sit and watch it come down. Even a gym would be good or maybe some DVDs.

Just after lunch it stopped for a while and having just said to one of the staff lovely day for ducks they duly obliged

ducks

They seemed to really enjoy the pool though as the heavens opened again they too retreated under cover.

I had by yesterday taken a few photos of the gardens. They are quite lovely if you are into gardens though I guess being near water and with a soil made up of silt  anything you plant grows like a weed here especially given the rainfall !

The resort boasts a croquet pitch

IMG_0170

which I have to say I haven’t seen anywhere else except in old country house hotels in the UK. Mind you they also do tea and scones at 4 p.m. here as well.  Croquet is apparently quite a nasty game the object being to send your opponents ball off into the nearest hedge row at every opportunity nothing refined and gentile about it at all.

Gardens 1

There are pleasant walks with lots of arches  both to walk under and dispatch your opponents ball to but apart from some very hard wooden benches no where to sit or better still lie and enjoy them when the sun is out.

We had hoped to take one of these out today

Longboat

You can do an hour long cruise to the Burma border and back. I think going up must take about 45 mins against a really strong current and back down about 10 mins. However even when not raining the air temp at just 16C would have prevented it. We haven’t got the right gear with us. Amazingly two other guests that arrived late last night appeared to go on their boat trip looking like they had been decked out by the Royal Lifeboat Association or the by the crew of a Newfoundland cod trawler . Where did they get it all I wonder and what on earth will they do with it all for the rest of their trip around Thailand. It’s 36C in Bangkok today so they might look just a little out of place there or on the beach in Ko Samui.

The riots are worse in Bangkok today with tear gas etc being used. We head there tomorrow so can give you first hand info on the situation. I, like war correspondences of old will position myself in a suitable watering hole and as the beer and scotch flow compose more and more exciting reports than I can see on the local TV station in said bar whilst keeping the bills for expenses and await my nomination for a Pulizer .

Education. Education, Education

So said a young Tony Blair when asked his priorities for his first government. Like so many politician’s promises or in Blair parlance ” sound bites” I’m not sure what happened to that one but up here near Chiang Rai on the Mae Kok River it has a certain resonance.

There are some 10 different peoples populating this area and most are a few notches up from what my geography master used to describe as subsistence farming e.g. these guys have stuff left over to sell. The way clearly to get them moving upwards is to ensure that the children get a sound education and can then makes life choices ( good buzz word don’t you think !) as to whether they want to stay or head off to the city because with it they will  be able to make the decision.

There are plenty of schools up here built by the Thai Rangers elite border control section of the army. They built them during the period when tension was high along the Thai/ Burma border and it was a way they hoped to stop the local peoples offering assistance to the Burmese forces that infiltrated across the porous border to attack the Rangers.

Tensions are now very low and the schools have fallen into disrepair. Step in Bryan Massingham the amiable owner of the Maekok River Resort and the Outdoor Adventure school for International School students from around the world who also was a geography teacher before building the resort.

Each week he has about 40 International school students here and because community service is now high on the education curriculum in many countries it seemed a natural to offer such an experience to his visiting students where they could add value ( I’m full of buzzy stuff today ) . It has worked a dream as they say.

When I was at school eons ago community service was done as a punishment for bad behaviour and we all considered it far worse than a beating with the cane. The idea of hours weeding some ancient pensioner’s garden was enough to almost dissuade you from say smoking. Indeed one new enlightened house master decided to do away with the cane and use the community service punishment alone. He was surprised to receive a petition signed by all the cadets in his house begging him to re-instate the cane immediately.

Now it is the normal part of being at school it seems and here the students do it in the local schools and Bryan took me to one today to see them in action.

The foreign students and this lot were from Hong Kong are split into two groups each day. In the morning one lot do painting or repairing of buildings

Int Students Painting school

 

Three days ago these were rusty unused school playground equipment. The students have sanded them down, oiled them, repaired them and now have painted them .by tomorrow they will be back in use and loaded with happy 5/6 year olds.

the other half teach English in the class room

Int School Teaching

 

Some like these guys are very good and the local kids pay real attention. I didn’t like to photograph the other room where the students had lost complete control of the children who were running amok. Byran with his head master’s hat on took control immediately and I found myself calling him “sir” for a short period as did the kids.

The real benefit though comes when the students go home having seen first hand the type of conditions the kids are taught in and start to raise funds to be sent back to the schools they have worked in.

Bryan has established close links with 38 schools in the area and since 2004 over 120 school improvement projects have been funded by the international school students to the value of over 15 million Baht ( £3 million ).

At this school he found that many of the very young students 5-7 years old were walking 5 kms each way to attend school each day. The funds have built two dormitories and now the youngsters weekly board and merely walk down on a Monday and go home on a Friday. The funds also started a small farm nearby to provide food for the boarders. Classrooms have been built , sports facilities  laid out and more teachers bought in.

They also provide funds to allow bright students to stay on at school when  the parents would normally take them away from school at 11 years old to help on the farm. Now they can stay on till 15 years old.

To increase fund raising Bryan loaned money to 6 local women to set up a small   pashmina business working on local looms.

Making Scafes Local Village

 

 

Now International school students buy the stock and take it home to sell there and we parents all know how good kids are at doing this. A school from Tokyo bought up 15,500 baht worth a few weeks ago and this week sent Bryan 57,000 baht having deducted the original outlay !

Since seeing Sri Lank a few years after the tsunami had hit and the almost total lack of new building despite the millions sent to the country I have grown sceptical of charities. Especially as I met in the Hilton in Columbo 50 or so so called NGO leaders living there on the executive floors making the odd visit to the the Galle area where the devastation was.

To see this little operation in practise was great . Blair was right of course but to him it was just a clever thing to say. Bryan and his small team are doing something very practical to improve the lot of the local people by providing education, education, education.

Die Deutschen Kommen !

The Germans are coming ! We have been enjoying a couple of days the way we did in Baan Krut a few weeks ago as the only guests in a rather large hotel. But our joy at having the place to ourselves is to be short lived .

A group of German tourists are to arrive tonight on their bus to spend a few days here before moving on.

Today  I spent most of the day by the pool or rather my own pool with my own choice of 11 pool loungers to choose from and a choice of green and blue towels. The pool is quite small

the pool 1

Ideal for young Hammond the hamster but not too good for 24 Germans and two Brits to co-exist around. You can do the math with just 11 pool loungers and 26 guests for yourself but basically it means world war two all over again. By Saturday towel parties will be slipping through the undergrowth near the pool  at 5.30 a.m. to lay them on said pool loungers and clutching wire cutters at the ready lest the other side has used chains to link the  loungers together ( I kid you not I saw it often  in Penang 3 years ago ) .

I don’t know if you remember that great Spitfire beer ad with the dam busters music and the brit bouncing his towel across the pool itself like a bouncing bomb to land on a lounger just before the German could lay his own towel on it. it is a technique I must practise this evening.

Last night we drank in our very own bar with two staff to answer our every beck and call had we wanted them to. We didn’t of course but that’s not the point we could have done. It was actually quite dark in the bar but it reminded me of a bar in many of the safari lodges in the Kruger Park down in South Africa. here it is in daylight ( I know but my camera is 8 years old folks and not seeing as well as it was in it’s youth).

athe bar

behind me in the photo is a large fireplace for the colder nights though I’m not sure what they mean by that. The Thai waitresses were all wearing thick anoraks last night and the temperature was about 20 C .

We collected the domino set and moved outside to play much to the horror of the Thai girl who thought we might freeze to death before the game was finished.

bar verandha

the view which at night is flood lit is this below but of course the game was too intense to enjoy it. I wonder if the Germans play Domino we could play them for a pool lounger or two perhaps.

bar view

The chefs here come from the Shan peoples who originally came from Burma and indeed until Britain and France carved  new borders on behalf of the Thais who i presume didn’t have a pencil, this bit of Thailand we are in was part of Burma. So we had Shan style curry of pork and chicken. There is no coconut milk in them and they are more sour and with much more turmeric than you find in Thai curries.

Now it seems quite by accident ho ho  the Top Gear boys brought with the from Burma some wine. Well to be honest quite a lot of wine indeed the E.U. wine lake crowd would have been proud of them. And despite a good effort by all the crew with them keenly involved too there was still some left over when they departed. We drank one of their bottles last night with our curry.

It is called Red Mountain and is grown by a German in the mountains in Burma using normal wine techniques. The altitude makes the weather similar to France but without the frost and he matures it in oak barrels imported from La Belle France.

What does it taste like well I’m sworn to secrecy. No I’m not really that just on what the Top Gear boys were doing here. It actually tastes not half bad. How is that for a wine critique ! It certainly slipped down a treat and though i’m not a great believer in wine with curry believing lager beer a better choice i have never been known to look a gift horse in the mouth as it were.

Well better get an early night I’ve got some towels to lay early tomorrow morning by cover of darkness. I stole them from my pool this afternoon ready for the raid so I have the advantage I think as the others  had been moved away by the time the enemy arrived on their bus. Achtung Englander.

Jungle Book

At 10.30 a.m. the car from the Maekok River Resort Village arrived to whisk us north west for the jungle part of the travels. The drive with a pee break took 3 hours on mainly dual carriage way roads. For about 30 kms of the 200km journey it was two lane as we wound up a mountain and back down the other side. Every 40 kms or so we passed through small towns built along the side of Route 107 that provided the local people with eating stalls, paint shops, agricultural machinery shops, clothes shops selling western fashion, coffee stalls and a farmers type market. The fields were full of picked sweet corn plants waiting to be cut and used as animal feed and kilometre after kilometre of rice paddies stretching as far as the eye could see into the distance. It is the rice harvest now and trucks ladened with rice were moving back down the road to Chiang Mai and huge container loads to Bangkok. The driver a local from Mai Ai our nearest large town to the resort said that most of the harvest is now fully mechanised  as too many of the workers had over the last few years  left the farms and hill tribes to join the thousands flocking to the cities like the ever growing Chiang Mai. There was plenty of road construction going on widening further the road but no elephants working just huge JCB bulldozers etc. Wonder what they are training the elephants for at the 5 training camps/ tourist attractions in Chiang Mai ?

We arrived at 1.30 and had the first surprise when the owner turned out to be a Brit, Bryan Massingham ex geography teacher and Hong Kong resident who runs the hotel and an adventure  school for visiting International schools and British and Australian schools on the same site.

It seems it is our time for film related stuff as we had just missed Messrs Clarkson, May and Hammond who had been staying here finishing a 2 hour special for Top Gear. We are in Richard’s suite and next door to Jeremy’s suite ! Ours is specially made for small people  – no just kidding. The view from our balcony

balcony View

 

Yes , yes here is the view from the Clarkson suite next door

Clarkson View

 

and no I don’t know where May slept but it must have been nearby. There were 27 on the production team who were here for a month and the boys rode in for just a week.

What were they doing here? Well guess what ? I can’t tell you. Bryan whispered it to me but we as he are now bound to secrecy . However the river is the Kok River so knowing their propensity for innuendo you can probably guess what it might involve. The Thai word for pumpkin is also  almost the f word so maybe another hint.

We are not in the jungle as much as I thought. The village of Thaton is but 1 km away but the jungle though not dense here is around us

Jungle\

The gardens of the hotel are stunning and I’ll post a few pictures over the next few days. The grounds are dotted with quiet sitting areas to relax read and watch the river run by punctuated on occasions with cheerful shouts from the various school parties visiting Bryan’s other business venture as they complete Duke of Edinburgh awards on the river. Tonight they are kayaking down the river to camp in the jungle for the night.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the great restaurant find from last night in Chiang Mai. If you come you must go to The Spirit House just up the road from the Opium Apartment Hotel.  at #4 Soi Viang Bua. It is owned by an American guy who dealt in antiques in Thailand for 20 years and 8 years ago opened it using many of the antiques he had in his shop . The garden has light tentacle like roots growing down from a covered roof and loads of water features. So much so that the traffic noise from the busy road is totally drowned out, The interior part is where the antiquities are as well as a bar area. The menu is a mix of American and Thai dishes cooked by his Thai chef. I had been tipped off about it by an octogenarian Irishman called Tim in a bar the night before. He was reading an L.P. Hartley book that had been made into a successful film years ago and I had read the book and seen the film for a change so had a chat to him about it. He said go and try the meatloaf or eat Thai which is also superb. I took him at his word and had a superb meatloaf with tons of salad and chunky french fries triple fried so they were crisp but the couple opposite eating northern Thai said their’s was fantastic too.

Tim had lived for 50 years in Key West florida and had been through many hurricanes as Key West seems to get whacked by hurricanes heading up the east coast of Florida and by the ones heading into the gulf of Mexico bound for New Orleans or Cancun. After Andrew he decided enough was enough and moved to Thailand and Chiang Mai to live. Would he go back ? No chance he loves the people and the medical services in Chiang Mai which he reckons are better than the USA.

We are dinner bound now with a few drinkies before hand to improve the appetite. rather glad i’m not with the school party camping on the bank of the Kok. i was reading up about King Cobra snakes this morning and they don’t sound friendly at all.