Saturday, April 30, 2011

A different kind of spa experience at Scandinave

There are spas where you can get massages and other body work, and there are massages where you can get facials, pedicures, manicures and other kinds of esthetics done. That's the modern concept of most day spas.

However, spas originally started in Europe and they didn't involve those kinds of treatments, at least not in the beginning. Look it up on an online dictionary or encyclopedia, and you may find the term spa is associated with water treatment which is also known as balneotherapy.


Everybody into the spa!
 At Scandinave Spa in Whistler, B.C., you can enjoy the best of both spa worlds: you can enjoy a very relaxing massage or other form of bodywork; and, you can also immerse yourself into the world of balneotherapy, or hydrotherapy. While those two processes are slightly different, they do overlap.

There is an added benefit to enjoying the spa there: you're surrounded by the beauty of the Coastal Mountains.

I had the opportunity to visit there recently, in February 2011.

Those unfamiliar with B.C. weather may not realize that at that time of year, it's often very mild here. So the fact that many of the various hydrotherapy "stations" are located outdoors should not deter you from visiting there at any time of the year. In fact, I found it more invigorating in late winter than I might have during the heat of summer. But, to each his own.

I started off with a Eucalyptus steam bath for 15 minutes, then went outside, plunged into a cold pool for 15 seconds, then hopped out and made a beeline to one of the Adirondack chairs placed around an open outdoor fire.

After some time outdoors, you might want
to have a snack or drink inside the spa by the fireplace.

Again, even though it was February, and I was dressed only in a bathing suit, flip-flops and a towel, I was not uncomfortable.

I repeated that hot-cold-warm process several times, using different parts of the facility: jacuzzi-cold shower-solarium; Finnish sauna-cold pool-solarium; steam room-cold pool-solarium.

After a few hours of that, I was certainly very relaxed. While I didn't have time for a massage that day, the next time I go there, I will make sure I take advantage of that option as well. And there will be a next time...

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Stepping through a portal to the past at Ottawa's Diefenbunker

Ghosts. I could swear there were ghosts, I just couldn't see them or hear them as I walked the halls of the Diefenbunker, a.k.a., Canada's Cold War Museum.

The facility is a huge four-storey bunker, buried deep under a hillside in the rural area outside Ottawa, Canada's capital city. It was originally built in the late 1950's and early 1960's, under the orders of the Prime Minister, John Diefenbaker, (hence its name) to house crucial elements of the Canadian government in the event a nuclear war broke out.

Thankfully, that never happened. However, it was only recently - 1994 to be exact - that the facility was de-commissioned and eventually turned into a museum.
Fatboy Atomic Bomb.

Walking through the long tunnel leading into a hillside and down into the four levels gave me a bit of a chill, and not just because it was a cold, damp March day. It made me think how seriously people feared an actual Atomic Armageddon back then. Not that we don't live in trying times today, but walking past the empty shells of atomic "Fat Boy" and hydrogen bombs in the entrance way is bound to give anyone pause for thought, I would venture.

The museum features some of the original equipment along with much newer replica equipment sent down to replace the materials removed when the armed forces pulled out of it back in the mid-90's.


Making the long trek down the tunnel.
You have to pass through the decontamination chambers as you come into the building, rooms where people showered then got Geiger-countered before being allowed to pass in. We visited the surgery, the war room (where the P-M and all the heads of the government dept.'s and military) would convene to plan the future of a war-torn continent. Shades of the movie Dr. Strangelove...

The entire facility is very institutional, right down to the pale green paint on the walls and the durable, functional furniture on display.

The cafeteria is still there, and while you can't get a meal there, you can sample modern-day K-rations, the food armies travel on.

Supposedly, Canadian rations are among the best in the world. The chili and beans weren't bad (better if you're camping out, I suppose) but if this is the best, I'd sure hate to see the worst ...

Of course, there is a gift shop where you can purchase several kitsch-y items as well as some less tacky souvenirs.


K-rations, anyone?

Although it is a bit sombre, it's heritage is a part of our past - our recent past - and all sombreness aside, it's kind of a cool place to visit.

And although you might feel like they're there, I doubt if will find any ghosts lurking about, even though there is a bit of a haunting, haunted quality about the place.

And as you leave, you might want to say a prayer of thanks that it never actually had to be used ...

Monday, April 25, 2011

Playing with Panthera at Tiger Temple

The tiger sniffed my hands, decided he liked the smell, then started to chew.

That is, he decided to chew the chicken I was holding out for him. (Betcha wondered where this was going, didncha?)

Although this sounds like I'm tempting fate, it's really not, at least not in my mind.

However, there is something very special about offering food to a large carnivore that you know could eat you if it decided to, but instead it takes the food from your hands, even taking time to lick your hands to make sure it gets all the juices and every last little bit of chicken there is to be had. The tongue, surprising, was really no rougher than the tongues of house cats I've kept as pets, albeit, it's much bigger.

Hand feeding a teen tiger.

The tiger was a large, but not fully-grown adolescent who lives with 87 other tigers at the Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. Feeding him was part of an incredible experience that capped off my visit to Thailand the first two weeks of April 2011.

Visitors to the centre may choose to participate in one of the extended programs that includes feeding an unweaned tiger cub with a bottle of formula, walking (or rather, being "walked by"!) a tiger cub, giving them a bath with soap and water, feeding them cooked chicken from your hands, playing with some of the adolescents in a pool, and finally, walking with/watching adult tigers engaged in play in a larger pool where only the facility's staff are allowed to be while the tigers are loose.

These tigers are not exactly wild, but not exactly tame, either. What has now become the Tiger Temple, started with the saving of two young Indo-Chinese tiger cubs from starving to death after their mother had been shot. Someone brought the cubs to this monastery and the monks began to care for them.

Before long, more cubs were brought to the temple, which eventually became a sanctuary.

A hungry cub

As with any approach that is outside the standard practice used in animal conservation or welfare, there are critics of the temple's approach to keeping these endangered animals in what is essentially a zoo. Some cite evidence of less-than-adequate conditions for some of the creatures. I cannot dispute that, nor can I confirm it; with any touring group, even as a media member, we are shown what the management chooses to show us, so I really cannot speak one way or another about the conditions behind the scenes. Quite honestly, I wouldn't really know what to look for. I can tell you if a companion parrot or dog or cat is being cared for properly; I don't know anything about caring for large carnivores.

The animals I saw during my visit seemed healthy and happy. Again, I didn't see all 88 tigers, so I cannot say one way or another how the overall conditions there match up with something like, say, the Bronx Zoo, which is probably the best zoo in the world.

During a lengthy conversation I had with Dr. Somchai, the head veterinarian at the Tiger Temple, he admitted the situation at the Tiger Temple is not a perfect solution; far from it. Would he not rather see these tigers in the wild? Yes, he would. But he does raise the pertinent question, "Where would they live?"

That's a question that is only partially hypothetical in nature - it is very practical, as well. There are very few extensive tracts of forest cover large enough to provide food and habitat for the 88 tigers that live at the temple, certainly not in Thailand. Dr. Somchai stated, quite accurately, that if those tigers could somehow be rehabilitated and be released into the wild, they would very soon be shot.

Kind of puts us all between a rock and a hard place, really. That question about dwindling habitat is one we all need to ponder as we continue to see more forests cut down in what used to be prime tiger habitat.

Sadly, the doctor expressed the thought to me that unless humans change our ways, he felt that eventually there will be no more wild tigers, anywhere. In fact, even now, there are more tigers in captivity than there are living in the wild. And that latter number seems to be decreasing further each year.



 
Tigers at play, Tiger Temple, Thailand

I hope to someday see a wild tiger in its natural habitat, before they all disappear. I may or may not experience that. I do know the experience I had at the Tiger Temple was awe-inspiring. It makes me want to do even more to save the remaining wild tigers.

There are many organizations working toward saving the last few remaining wild tigers. Among that group are:

The World Wildlife Fund Tiger Conservation Program
The Save the Tiger Fund
The Sumatran Tiger Trust
The Wildlife Conservation Society Tigers in Peril

I'll finish this post by leaving this quote for you to ponder (bearing in mind, that given humankind's current path, we may very well be eliminating the other possibility):

"It is not part of a true culture to tame tigers, any more than it is to make sheep ferocious."
  Henry David Thoreau 
(If you would like to see more images of my experience at Tiger Temple, go to:


Sunday, April 24, 2011

Hanging with the Hill Tribes of Thailand

A good portion of one day during my recent travels around Thailand involved a bit of hiking, a bit of haggling and plenty of highland views of some wonderful landscapes.

We enjoyed these experiences while visiting a pair of Hill Tribe villages in the Chiang Mai area of the country.

Hill tribe is a term used in Thailand for all of the various tribal peoples who migrated from China and Tibet during the past few centuries. They now inhabit the remote border areas between northern Thailand, Laos and  Myanmar. These areas are known for their thick forests and mountainous terrain.


Ready to bargain for a purse
We spent time with the Palong (also spelled "Palaung") tribe, a group originating from China and Myanmar. We only needed about a half hour hike up a road through the forest from our van to reach the first village, set off the road a bit, which peters out as it goes further into the hills.

As soon as we arrived, three or four women wearing the traditional clothing of their culture began to spread out blankets and set out crafts to sell us.

Bartering is part of their way of life, so I quickly became embroiled in a bargain for a small purse. She wanted 150 Baht for it, I countered with 100, she came back quickly with 120, and I thought that was a good bargain, so I purchased it.

The most striking feature about Palong women is their teeth: they're dark black. Depending on who you talk to, it's caused by chewing betel nut combined with lime paste and palm nut wrapped in a betel leaf, done to improve the strength and health of the teeth (that's what our guide, Chan, told us); or, according to other sources, it's done through a painting process as the women consider it to be a form of beauty, much like we co, according to other sources.

While not all the women sport blackened teeth, and regardless of the reason or cause, it does produce a striking appearance.


Beyond the Lost Horizon ...
After chatting with some of the women through Chan's interpretation (most of the men were away from the village, working), we paid a quick trip to the village temple, then strode across a short bridge and began a trek that would take us high up into the hills above the village.
When we reached the highest point, we looked back down into the village we had left, and down and ahead to a beautiful valley below, seeing the village we were headed toward.

 We were about halfway between the two villages, in terms of the distance between them. The one we were headed for, far below, surrounded by hills and forests, reminded me of the mythical kingdom of Shangri-La, of the book and movie , The Lost Horizon.

Down we went, across the hills, past fields of crops, including coffee and pineapple plants. A short walk along a narrow forested path brought us to a bridge across a stream and into our second village.

We ate lunch, did some more trading, took some more pictures, then piled into our van, which had met us there, and our drive back to the city. 
A Palong woman weaves cloth the traditional way,
and listens to the less traditional radio.

Before leaving the village, though, we had an opportunity to observe a Palong woman using a traditional loom to weave cloth used by the tribe for their traditional dress as well as for selling to tourists.

It was a short trip in terms of distance - but it was a much longer trip in terms of time, if you consider it truly is a trip back in time to see an ancient way of life practised as it has been for centuries throughout southeast Asia.

Friday, April 22, 2011

River Kwai reminders of how atrocious man can be to man

It would be very remiss of me to visit Kanchanaburi province in Thailand, and not visit the Bridge on the River Kwai.

Of course, the bridge that's there now is not the same one built then destroyed during World War II. But close by, there are a pair of memorials that serve to remind us of man's inhumanity and brutality to his fellow man.


 Riding the tourist train over the Bridge on the River Kwai.

While the events that transpired around the bridge did not take place exactly like the movie (or for that matter, the novel) tells it - it was eventually blown up by a bomber airplane, not a group of commandos coming in through the jungle - the brutality and poor treatment of the POW's who worked there was real. That's all documented at the Jeath War Museum, located not far from the bridge in Kanchanaburi province.

A visit to that museum will show you displays of old newspaper accounts, as well as photos and artwork depicting the actions that took place there. There are also a few displays of some old army equipment from those times.

A quick drive will take you to the site of the bridge itself. There, you can ride a tourist train over the river along the bridge. At night, you can eat at a restaurant by the water and see the bridge lit up.

Hellfire Pass, also known as the "Konyu Cutting," was on the same railway line as the infamous and better-known bridge. The Thai and Australian governments joined forces to build a memorial museum and place markers along part of the trail where the old railway ran, to commemorate the horrific loss of life suffered here during World War II.

Walking the trail of the Hellfire Pass.

As I strolled down the trail, breathing the cool morning air of the jungle, it was hard to believe a place this peaceful was the scene of such horror and brutality.

Yet the images shown on film in the museum do not lie. There were some terrible things done here, people treated horribly. Going inside from the peace of the forest to seeing those images can jar one's senses.

Like any museum whose focus is war, or least military in nature, this museum's role is not to glorify battle and killing; rather, its most important role is to serve as a reminder of how badly humans can treat their fellow men and women - and remind us of how we have to guard against that, or - paraphrasing another war movie set in southeast Asia, Apocalypse Now! - to help us keep "the dark side (from) overcome(ing) ... the better angels of our nature."
 

Amen, to that.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Quirky aspects to every culture, Thailand no exception

One of the wonderful things about travelling to other countries and experiencing other cultures is the chance to see quirky little things, expressions and ways of doing things that are different than my own culture. Mind you, living in Vancouver provides me with the opportunity to see many different cultures right here; however, there's nothing like experiencing it firsthand in the country where a culture originates.

Take for example, eating quirks. In several Andean countries in South America, guinea pig - or "cuy" as it's called there - is considered a delicacy. I've had cuy in both Ecuador and Peru. I preferred the Peruvian version, as the cuy I had in Quito was deep-fried while in Cuzco, I ate a con fit of cuy as part of an appetizer.

Anyone in the mood for some frog skins?

Of course, in many cultures, bugs are considered good sources of protein. I admit to eating ants in the Amazon jungle - just tiny ants, popped into my mouth from a tree, tasting a bit citrus-y. However, I never did work up the nerve to try the cicadas or beetles that were on sale in some food markets in Thailand. Ditto, the frog skins or snakes.

Food is not the only quirky aspect you'll see in other countries. The rituals surrounding the use of bathroom facilities can also be interesting. Sometimes the facilities themselves can be quite interesting.

How about some nice, fresh beetles?
One of the aspects I really liked about Thai bathrooms (or at least the ones in the hotels and lodges where I stayed) is the presence of what I call a "poor man's bidet." It's a small shower head and hose attached to the toilet, used to clean yourself after doing your business. Very sanitary, much more so than just toilet paper. I wish they were standard equipment here in North America, or for that matter, everywhere.

Of course, if you happen to be hiking or doing some other outdoor activity where there are no toilets, you have to go behind some bushes. Thais have a couple of really quaint expressions for this: if you're a man, you have to go "shoot a rabbit;" if you're a woman, you have to "go pick some flowers."

I was really tickled by these expressions - and even more so when I went to use the toilet facilities at a café where we ate lunch. Outside the two sets of washrooms was a bas-relief mural that left no doubt where the men's and ladies' washrooms were located.

Shooting a rabbit, picking some flowers:
Guys on the left, gals on the right.

Of course, every culture (including our own) have some quirks that are not as nice.

For example, in Thailand, you can often find people in the markets who will have animals like birds or fish captive in cages or water bowls. For a small fee, you can purchase the "release" of said animals and gain karma points.

The problem is, those same birds are often re-captured by the seller in order to re-sell their release and help others gain karma points. So I don't know that it's really doing what it is supposed to do. Buying the release of an animal just so it can be re-captured and re-released so the seller generates profit seems to go against the whole spirit of Buddhism, in my mind. It's not really released - so how do you gain karma points?

Maybe there is an explanation. Until I hear it, though, it's one of those weird, culturally quirky aspects of Thailand I'll continue to ponder...

Monday, April 18, 2011

Journey into the jungle, let its rhythms float your cares away

"When I was here, I wanted to be there; when I was there, all I could think of was getting back tino the jungle ..."
- Martin Sheen as "Captain Willard" in the 1979 film, Apocalypse Now!

Okay, so I mentioned in my last blog post that I spent some time in Thailand at the River Kwai Jungle Rafts lodge. I stayed there one night, but I really wish I could have spent more time there.

View of the main eating and drinking area, from my "porch."
I arrived in a torrential downpour, via dugout canoe (motorized, thankfully, or I would have really been soaked.) Not that it would have mattered that much. Being wet is part of being in the jungle. As long as I can keep my camera gear dry, I'm happy.

What is it that's so special about a jungle lodge - or for that matter, being in the jungle?

It's really hard to explain, at least to someone who has never been in the jungle or someone who doesn't feel the same tug. Obviously, there's a romantic appeal to being in the jungle, at least there is for me. I love the sounds, the scents, the feel that there's so much life contained within its environs. As a kid growing up, I loved watching movies or cartoons that involved jungle adventures. Still do, as a matter of fact...that's why I have the complete original Jonny Quest series on DVD, as well as all the Indiana Jones movies.

At the same time, there are things about the jungle that are not all that appealing, chief among those being the heat, the bugs, and the fact you never seem to have dry clothes to wear because you've soaked everything you own in sweat during your forays into the jungle.

Like Martin Sheen's character demonstrates in the opening scene of the movie Apocalypse Now!, there can be a real ambiguity about being in the jungle, at times it seems like a love-hate relationship.

A Mon woman demonstrating one of her tribe's dances.
For me, it's mostly love. I love the jungle. Of course, one of my passions - parrots - is centered around the jungle, as that's where most parrot species live. I've been very fortunate in my life that I have seen wild parrots in jungles around the world - as well as some other pretty cool wildlife like gorillas, orangutans, hornbills, monkeys and snakes to name but a few.

So, it stands to reason, someone with my interest and love of the jungle would also love staying in jungle lodges. (I've camped in small tents along jungle rivers, and while it's fun, it's also nice to have a bed to sleep in, as I have on trips to Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Malaysia and now Thailand.)

The lodge at River Kwai Jungle Rafts does it a bit better than most because it floats on the river. It has no electricity (which I think is kind of cool) so kerosene lamps are used to light your room at night. (It also helps if you bring a Petzl headlamp). There is also no air-conditioning, but the river seems to help keep things cool at night.

There's an outdoor "Jungle Bar" you can sidle up to and order a cold beer like a Singha or a Chang. It has great views of the jungle surrounding you on all sides. It even has a jungle spa if you want to relax with a massage.

Time for a cold Singha after the show.

The lodge also offers plenty of other activities, including canoeing/kayaking, elephant rides, fishing, bird-watching and hiking. At night, after supper, members of the Mon tribe of Burma entertain guests with cultural dance.

Then there are the sounds...
Lying in my bed in the dark, I hear night birds calling to each other in the depths of the forest.

Then I hear something large crashing through the underbrush on the other side of the river. A wild boar perhaps, or maybe a deer. Over breakfast, I hear the trumpeting of elephants, announcing the start of another day in paradise.

Yes, I definitely have jungle fever ... I can hear that jungle rhythm...

My latest off-the-wall massage experience: jungle spa

Trust Thailand to provide me with Number 10A in my list of odd, interesting, unique and amusing massage experiences, as related in my first posts on this blog.

No, it wasn't a "happy ending" massage; and it didn't involve paint masks, reiki, gum-chewing waitress types or even a pregnant massage therapist asking me to "feel (her) belly."

What made this particular massage creep onto the list was its location, combined with its immediate ambiance.


Welcome to the Jungle (spa)...
It took place at the River Kwai Jungle Rafts, a really interesting jungle lodge accommodation located right on the Kwai River. And I mean literally on the river. The lodge is set on floats, and it sits away from the shore.
I love jungle lodges, and this one was no exception - it was pretty cool, just being able to stay there for a night, drink beer at the "Jungle Bar," watch the Mon tribe from Burma put on a cultural dance display, and listen to the sounds of the jungle on either shore during the night.

They also have a jungle spa there, where you can get Thai massage, foot reflexology, or my personal favorite, an aromatherapy massage.

What made this particular massage experience unique/odd/amusing/interesting (pick one!) was the set-up for the massage.

While Thai massage is done fully clothed, on a mat, usually on the floor, a massage with oil on a table usually requires a bit more privacy, since most, if not all of your clothes, are removed.


Spa menu at River Kwai Jungle Rafts
(32 baht = $1 Cdn)
I walked into the spa after booking my appointment and saw the tables. They were side by side - and there were no walls anywhere. The only thing giving you any privacy are some gauze-like curtains the massage therapist rolls down. But there are gaps, and even without the gaps, people outside the curtains can still see the massage taking place through the curtains. The client can hear people talking in the waiting area.

"Hmmm...mmm..." I'm thinking. "I wonder how this is going to work?"

I should point out, that during any kind of regular therapeutic massage I receive from a Registered Massage Therapist in Vancouver, I'm basically naked, but completely covered with a sheet, other than the area immediately being worked on. That's pretty standard procedure.

Given that, I think you can figure out why I felt a little hesitant about the set-up at this jungle spa.

Then my therapist, a really nice Burmese lady, told me to take off my shirt.

Okay, no problem.

The rather non-private massage tables

Then she told me to take off my pants...so I start taking them off, but I'm a bit hesitant, as I can see and hear people about 20 feet away. She senses my slight discomfort, takes a quick look, and says, "Oh, good, you have underwear on."

Yeah. Good, indeed.

Really, that's the only way to do it, given that kind of set-up. I sure wasn't about to get down to my birthday suit if the room was not completely private.

Once that was settled, I jumped up onto the table, and enjoyed a nice relaxing 60-minute massage. Except for the mosquitoes. Where's that Tiger Balm when I need it? (In Thailand, it seems Tiger Balm is a cure all for everything. Got muscle aches? Slap on the Balm. Mosquito bites? Rub some TB on them. I even had a guide put it on a scalp cut I got when I banged my head in a temple.)

Anyway, the massage itself was great. I left the spa and went immediately to dinner, in ultra-relaxed mode.

Dinner involved three bottles of Singha beer, so I was even more relaxed after eating.

Life in the jungle is definitely good ...

Rollin' down the river (on a reconverted rice barge)

Now I know what you're thinking ... and no, the title does not refer to a barge that hauls twice- or even once-converted rice.

(A quick aside: was there ever a more useless food created? What's wrong with long grain/short grain/sticky/Basmati/brown/wild rice? Why do we need to convert rice? Can't we allow it to keep its own spiritual beliefs?)
 
All aboard the Mekhala!

No, what I'm actually referring to is an old rice barge that Thai River Cruises converted into a passenger boat to ferry tourists up and down the Chao Phraya, a.k.a., the "River of Kings." The company actually runs two boats, I happened to be aboard the Mekhala for my overnight cruise from Ayutthaya down to Bangkok.

The boat is 20 metres long and constructed from huge teak planks. It’s 100 years old, but it has been transformed into a rather stylish floating hotel, complete with a sundeck, fully-stocked bar, books for passengers' reading pleasure and staterooms that include air-conditioning and private western style bathrooms.

I'd spent the first half of the day exploring the ancient capital of Ayutthya with Neung, a guide with Nutty's Adventures, using bicycles to visit the ruins and ancient temples from the days when this city was the capital of Siam.

Having traded bicycle wheels for boat engines, I sat back and relaxed, watching the river roll by on our journey to the modern-day capital of Thailand.


A raft of water hyacinth and a fish shack.
Our passenger list certainly had an international flavor to it. I was the only North American on this particular cruise; we also boasted a German, an Austrian, seven Danes and a Thai lady who had grown up in Denmark. Then, of course, we had a Thai crew of four.

We saw an odd mix of the old and new as we motored at a leisurely pace along the river. Buddhist temples and their associated buildings certainly dominated the structures we saw along the riverbanks. On the river itself, our boat was joined by craft as small as one-person fishing skiffs to huge barges of rice, ore and other materials being hauled up and down the river by tugboats. At various points, we also saw large rafts of water hyacinth plants floating on top of the river.

Once underway, our crew prepared us cocktails of our choosing. For my first drink of the day, I opted for a "Mekhala Special", a concoction of different tropical fruit juices, gin and something called "Thai whiskey," which, as I understand it, is closer in character to being a rum than a whiskey. (And depending on who you talk with, there is or is not a spirit called Thai whiskey.)

Regardless of its ingredients, it was delicious - cold and refreshing.

Alternately napping and snapping (photos), I whiled away the afternoon. At about 5 p.m., we reached Wat Kai Tia, a Buddhist monastery and its associated village. The captain turned us loose for an hour or so, to wander about the one main street. There wasn't a lot there, but I did manage to find a little café where no one spoke English, but sold very cold Leo's Lager Beer. I enjoyed a can before heading back to the boat for a sumptuous candlelit dinner on board.


Enjoying the deck during our cruise
 We were up and heading down the river before 6:30 the next morning. We enjoyed another fine meal, a hot, full breakfast. A rain shower drove us under cover for a few minutes, but it passed by quickly.

And that's really a good description of how the cruise ended - all too quickly. Before long, the skyline of Bangkok loomed in front of us with its contrasting mix of old and new buildings, modern hotels next door to ancient temples, the ferry boat traffic moving people and goods up and down the city's main thoroughfare. (Before the automobile and its associated roads became the main form of transportation, Bangkok could be negotiated by a series of canals, which gave rise to it often being referred to as "the Venice of the East.")

We said our good-byes, passengers and crew, and disembarked to head off in our separate directions for our next adventure in Thailand.

Buddha Bicycling around Thailand's ancient capital

When we last left Rocky and Bullwinkle -- er, -- our intrepid blogger, he had just finished celebrating Songkran, the Thai New Year.

The new year's celebrations in Thailand tend to go on all week, at least it seemed that way while I was there. One of the common ways Thais express joy at the coming of a new year is by soaking their neighbors with buckets of water and/or super-soaker water pistols.


Some of the ruins at Wat Phra Si Sanphet
Believe it or not, those "water wars" actually stem from the ancient Buddhist practice of sprinkling water on your family, friends and neighbors to bless them. Somewhere along the way, people got the idea it was more fun to totally soak people rather than just sprinkle them. Being an old water gun warrior myself, I can certainly understand the mindset. 
However, I was certainly glad that when I received a blessing during Monday night's festivities near Wat Pho, it was just a sprinkling I received. (I was wet enough from sweat, anyways - this is the tropics, after all!)

The next day, blessed and drier, I was off to Ayutthaya to experience more of the Buddha nature of the country. Ayutthaya is the ancient capital of the kingdom of Siam. My visit here took the form of two different activities: bicycling and boating.
Reclining Buddha image


Cruising along the Chao Phraya River on an overnight trip between Bangkok and Ayutthaya has been one of my "bucket-list" items for about five or six years. There are several different ways to do the trip; you can do it one day, as it's only a journey of 80 km. You can leave Bangkok, sail to Ayutthaya and overnight there, returning the next day. My own trip involved driving to Ayutthaya to spend the morning bicycling to many of its ancients ruins and temples, then boarding a boat in the afternoon to float down to Bangkok with an overnight stop.

I cycled with Nutty's Adventures, guided on my own personal three-hour tour (no, Gilligan was not involved!) by a young lady named Neung. She proved to be an excellent guide, as we pedalled our way to some of the city's ruins and temples.

We began our tour at the Ayutthaya Historical Study Center, to get some of the historical context. Then it was off on our bikes.


Buddha head at Wat Mahathat

Highlights of the tour included a huge (37 metres long) reclining Buddha carved from stone, a stone Buddha head entwined in tree roots at Wat Mahathat, and the ruins of Wat Phra Si Sanphet, which was the old site of the royal palace.

The time went very quickly and it was soon time to begin the second leg of my journey between the capital cities, ancient and current, by trading in my bicycle for a berth on the Mekhala, a rice barge converted into a passenger ship that carries tourists up and down the River of Kings .

Anchors (or should I say "ankgors?") away!

(I know, I know, "Ankgor" is actually Cambodian - but we did see an example of Cambodian architecture in some of the ruins at Ayutthaya...)

Monday, April 11, 2011

A Night at the Temple

"...so you better go back to your bars, your temples, your massage parlours ..."
- Murray Head, in the song One Night in Bangkok

While I haven't been to any bars or massage parlours in Bangkok, I can now at least say I've been to a temple.

You could say I've been to THE temple: Wat Pho.

This Bangkok landmark is renowned for several reasons.
For one thing, it is home to Thailand's most renowned Thai massage school. It is home to more than 1,000 Buddha images.
But probably it's best known feature is its 46-metre long, reclining golden Buddha.
I visited there Monday, April 11, as part of an international celebration of Songkran, the Thai New Year, hosted by Tourism Thailand.

Members of the media from all over the world attended,  in conjunction with an ecotourism conference.

A boat ride down the Chao Phraya River, temple tours, cultural performances and great food - both in the temple grounds and at a nearby park - made the evening an occasion to remember for the visitors. Oh, and don't forget the jasmine leis and water blessings we received.

The temple itself is absolutely breath-taking. Sounds cliched, I know. But it really is an incredibly special place, just magnificent. Photos or word descriptions do not do it justice.
You really have to see it for yourself to appreciate it.
It's open seven days a week, 365 days of the year, and it only costs 50 baht to visit. That's about $1.50 Canadian.

If you do go, plan to spend the whole day there. Maybe get a Thai massage at the school while you're there (about $10 for an 60-minute massage - and you won't find that price anywhere in North America for a similar service!).

Even if you decide not to get a massage, you will definitely need more than a few hours to take it all in. I certainly wished I could have spent more time exploring all the beautiful architecture, and soak in all the atmosphere.

If you'd like to see more photos of the event, visit my Facebook photo album at http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1021036665#!/album.php?fbid=1872820453174&id=1021036665&aid=105707

Saturday, April 9, 2011

A good guide makes a world of difference

Whether you're a travel writer on a research trip or a tourist on vacation, obtaining the services of a good guide can often make or break the experience.

During the course of my travels, I've had great guides, poor guides and everything in-between.

Obviously, the qualities you look for in a guide include local knowledge, good contacts/rapport with local operators and accommodation providers and good communication skills. Punctuality is a key attribute. It is important that they understand what your needs/expectations you have, in order to make your trip successful. It also helps if they are friendly, committed to their job (you can usually tell when they are not) and although it's not an absolute requirement, it also helps if they have a good sense of humour.

During my recent two days in Chiang Mai, our guide, Chan, demonstrated all of these qualities.

Chan, our Chiang Mai guide,
from the back of a rickshaw.
He was extremely helpful in making sure I knew where to go in order to take good photos, always offered to stop, or point out something if he thought there was a good photo op. He was flexible at trying to help us meet our needs.
And he had a pretty good sense of humor, too.

Example: Our first full day in Thailand, we're driving into Chiang Mai, to our hotel, the Tamarind Village Inn, and he's pointing out  various places of interest along the way.

As we pass a corner bar, which happened to have several semi-scantily-clad young ladies sitting on stools, or at tables, he said, grinning at me, "That's a place for lonely men to go, in Chiang Mai." A short pause, then,"Are you feeling lonely, John?"

A voice from the back of the van called out, "He shouldn't be, he's traveling with four women!"

We all got a good chuckle out of that. It helped set a relaxed mood of camaraderie that continued throughout our journey. You can't really put a dollar value on something like that - but it can be an invaluable asset to any guide's repertoire.

Chan was diligent, warm, hard-working, punctual and fun to be around.

His approach really is a blueprint for excellent guiding services. It doesn't get much better than that.

Hiking in the Land of Leeches

After dealing with a jungle thunderstorm that temporarily cut off power at Northern Thailand's Pang-Soon Lodge - a torrential downpour that  threatened to curtail our scheduled activities - when the sun started to come out at mind-morning, we thought nothing could daunt us.

Wrong.

We headed out for an afternoon nature hike along the Mae Lai River. It started with a bit of a tough uphill stretch, but soon we were strolling past vast groves of bamboo, vanilla trees, tea and numerous coffee trees. The terrain began to change, sending us back and forth across the river along narrow wooden bridges and up and down mossy stone steps cut into the rock.

Several beautiful waterfalls of various sizes highlighted the path, and when we got to the grandaddy of the falls, we did have the option of swimming in the river at the foot of the falls. Not a bad idea, considering how hot and humid we'd become during our 45-minute trek up to the falls.

Until the leeches showed up.

They weren't bi g- but they were insidious, and the little black,worm-like creepy-crawlies seemed to be everywhere. I was the last one in our group to get to the falls, and as I was approaching the edge of the bank, everyone else was rushing the other way, beating a hasty retreat away from the falls.

"Leeches!" came the cry.

One of the ladies in  our group showed me one of the little parasites on her leg. Meanwhile, our lead guide was encouraging me to step out onto the rocks in the river to get a good angle for a photo of the falls.

"What the heck," I thought. "I don't see any leeches lurking about on the rocks, the leech didn't look that big - and I'll only be a few minutes."

So out I walked, to shoot some photos and video of the falls.

Several minutes later, my mission accomplished, I made my way back to the shore. That's when the assistant guide pointed down at my crotch.

There was something small and dark, wiggling around (and no, I had not accidentally left my fly open!)

It was a leech, hanging on to the front of my pants, looking to gain access to my skin, so it could attach itself and start sucking (my blood, people, my blood!)

I quickly flicked it off, then did a hasty survey. There didn't seem to be any more of his disgusting little playmates on me, so off I went, trudging back down the path.

Belly button courtesy of Norah Murphy;
leech courtesy of nature.
(Photo by Laura Byrne Paquet)
I took my time heading back, stopping to shoot several photos along the way. At one point, I was passed by two of the ladies in our group, who had been behind me. They were practically running down the trail, and only took time to mutter something like, "Leeches! Gross!"

I continued to saunter along the path, taking photos.

When I got back to the lodge, the staff told me to stop and put my gear down. A bit perplexed, I did as I was bid - then figured out why they told me to do that.

It was time for a leech inspection.

They found seven on me, mainly on my socks and pants, (which were tucked into my pants, thankfully). They sprayed them with what can only be described as "leech-off." If sprayed on the leeches vigorously enough, they would curl up and eventually fall off.

After that, I headed straight for the shower and while stripping off my T-shirt, found one final determined leech stuck to the inside of my shirt. It took quite a big of convincing (it really was a determined little blood-sucker!) but eventually I managed to get him off my shirt and into the toilet which I flushed quickly and with no small amount of satisfaction.

Then into the shower I jumped. I don't think I ever washed so thoroughly in my life, especially given the fact it was a essentially a cold shower (this is a jungle lodge, after all).

It turns out, I got off easy. Everyone else in our group had at least one leech on their skin, including one lady who had it attached to her bell button. (Shades of Alien!)

While it wasn't quite as bad as Humphrey Bogart's leech scene in The African Queen, my leech experience certainly didn't leave me thirsty for more.

I loved the hike, the scenery and the sounds and smells of the jungle.

But I think next time I hike in this area, I'll make sure to bring some of that leech-off. Or at least a large shaker of table salt.

Friday, April 8, 2011

What to do when you don't pedal

In my last blog post, I wrote about "pedal power" in Thailand - the use of bicycle-powered rickshaws to get around the city.

I did a quick trip myself in Chiang Mai. Really enjoyed it.

But while I like cycling when someone else is pedalling, I'm not a huge cyclist myself. In fact, I've cycled once since 2002.

Like I tell people, "I'm a paddler - not a pedaller."

So when flooding in southern Thailand scuttled the planned elephant back ride as well as a canoe trip down a river, trip organizers scrambled to find a new itinerary.

The one they came up with involved mountain biking.

Like I said, I'm a canoehead - not a gearhead. So I opted out of Friday afternoon's biking excursion.

Instead, I went to the Sankhampang Hot Springs to sweat by soaking rather than spoking.

The source of the springs is a pair of geysers, spouting red hot water in a nice park setting. But you don't dare soak in those, as they're hot enough to boil eggs in (which people actually do, I'm told).

You can  sit along a rail and soak your feet in a small stream that leads out of the hot springs basin. Or, you can go sit in a private tub that has "hot" and "hotter" faucets coming directly from the mineral pool.

If you're me, first you stop at the massage facility located in the park and get a Thai massage or foot massage. Then you go soak your bod.

It's hard to say which one is more relaxing and beneficial. It may require additional study on my part over the next several days. But I think I'm up to it.

Besides, I owe my readers - I'm sure they're dying to know ....

Pedal power rolls on in Thailand

You know you're in Thailand when ...

...you see far more two-wheeled vehicles on the streets and highways than you do four-wheeled ones.

Most of the former take the form of small motorbikes. You'll see equal numbers of men and women driving them, often with someone else along for the ride, sitting behind the driver.

The other form, of course, is the bicycle.

One rickshaw taxi, at your service.

Both of those vehicles are also used to ferry passengers around city streets. The motorbikes-taxis are called tuk-tuks; the bicycle powered cabs are called rickshaws.

Similar to the ancient rickshaws of Asia, they are human-powered. And they're not a bad way to get around, see the city - and at a pace that actually allows you to see the city, and maybe even Shana a few photos while you're cruising along.

Although they're popular with tourists, locals often use them as well, especially for chores like hauling groceries or goods back from the markets, if you don't have a car or motorbike.

They can also take you places motorized vehicles may not be able to go, places like the courtyards of temples.


So if you're ever in  Chiang Mai, Thailand, why not try hailing one, and see the city from a different perspective?

Or as Freddie Mercury and Queen said, in  that famous song about rotund-reared ladies: "Get on your bike and ride!"