Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Four Thousand Islands

Yesterday... The sky's looking as black as thunder so I'm going to post these pics before it all crashes!

Today... I’m now writing this the following day, and yes, it was the mother and father of all storms last night. First there was the wind in the trees, then a more consistent noise which was the sound of rain drops cascading onto the foliage, marching ever closer. And then it hit us. The sky was now black and the heavens opened.

We sat on the verandah downstairs and ate, watching the drops pounding the ground and splashing up in the air in a foot or two of mist. I checked the house for leaks and yes, there were some trickles into the garage and the porch at the front so today I’ll be up there with my silicone gun once more. Thai plumbing and roofs always leak and nobody seems in the least bit surprised!

When the rain had almost stopped I put on boots and walked down to the end of our land by the wooden house and waded through our newly acquired lake. My aim was to clear out the gulley that drains water into the sugar cane next door. As I bent down to scrape away some leaves, my glasses fell from my top pocket and were swept away in the torrent. It wasn’t until next day that I found them, though it wasn’t quite like the rapids we’d just seen in southern Laos!

And now for the last bit of our holiday trip to Laos…

Finally after the Bolaven Plateau and Wat Phu in Champasak province, we made it down to the far south of Laos where the river Mekhong thunders through rapids thirteen miles wide before leveling out to cross the plains of Cambodia before reaching Phnom Penh and its vast delta region in Vietnam.

Our destination was to be Don Khone, one of many tiny islands only a few feet above the ovaltine flood waters where an intimate backpacker tourist scene of bamboo huts and bungalows has recently sprung up. It’s pretty small… the Lonely Planet tells me the island is 18 by 8 kilometers at its widest and has 13,000 inhabitants so it certainly is sleepy and intimate.

We were put in a narrow river craft and swept at speed across the water for twenty minutes before arriving at our idyllic tropical hideaway. We stayed at Pan’s Guest House, six delightful wooden rooms with clean modern toilets set up by the water among the palm trees, a hint of paradise for a few hundred baht. There’s nothing much else there, not even mains electricity but the generator runs and powers the lights and fan in the evening and the surroundings are truly beautiful.

Next to the rooms is a fine brick and cement shop house about a hundred years old, the only building of masonry, except for the old French colonial school, clinic and resident’s house. Mr Pan told me the story of his family’s lovely old house. His wife’s male forebears had been Vietnamese in the French colonial army and had been posted to the island. Presumably one of them had married a local girl and built this high status building which the family now still occupies.

I asked Mr Pan about his excellent English and he told me he had previously been a tuk-tuk driver in Pakse and for three years had gone to night school to study. Other Lao people working with tourists spoke equally good English and I always wonder why the Thais seem to find our language so very difficult to get to grips with. But I digress a little!

In the nineteenth century, the French colonists occupying what are now Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, Indo-China as they called it, were hungry to expand their influence and dreamed of making the river Mekhong a super-highway into the region, possibly linking up with and trading with southern China. Expeditions were launched up the river but it was when they got to the Mekhong rapids where we were now staying that they realized the dream could not be fully realized.

In the spirit of the colonial age, they did not totally give up on the idea of trade however. They conceived a scheme to trans-ship goods across the rapids by means of a railway running between our island and the next one, called Don Det. Thus ships coming down stream would off-load at a wharf at Don Det and load the cargo onto the train. This would then chuff down the railway, across a fine arched bridge to Don Khone and to the wharf downriver where it would be unloaded onto ships headed for Cambodia and Vietnam. So far as I know the project was a relative success and was even used by the occupying Japanese until it fell into disuse at the end of the Second World War. Now all the track is gone but the basic infrastructure is still there.

Poignantly a French locomotive stands rusting for all to see. The track beds are still intact and the superb many-arched bridge, presumably unmaintained for half a century, looks to be in fine condition, a tribute to its builders. It’s now just a curiosity for tourists, but with trade on the river growing, especially in the upper reaches between China and Thailand, one wonders if the railway scheme could have a renaissance. Road routes into Cambodia and northwards are poor and an unbroken river artery could be a fine stimulus to trade.

Our days were spent exploring the railway on hired bicycles, finding the old resident’s house, now a guest house, wandering through the villages, admiring the old temple with its ancient Khmer pavings and stones scattered around and sheltering for drinks and noodles every time a heavy shower came through.

Most exciting of all we headed for the rapids where we watched the brown waters thundering over the rocks in a devastating display of nature’s might. Here at Li Phii are some substantial bamboo fish traps and an old man explained to Cat that when the conditions are right, they can scoop up large quantities of fish.

The name, Li Phii, loosely translated means the ‘haunted fish traps’ which is explained by the fact that during the Indo-Chinese wars, many corpses came down the river and often they would end up caught in them. This was again explained by the old man, though I’m not mentioning how he referred to the enemy in the skies as this would offend American readers.

Thankfully, apart from the thunder of the falls, this must now be one of the most quiet and serene places in the world, free of trucks and cars and modern development and even of mains electricity. Life is dominated by fishing and the eternal cycle of the rice harvest where ploughing is still mainly done with buffaloes. In Surin, I’ve been collecting buffalo harrows as museum pieces, but here they are still in use.

In the morning as we breakfasted in the old shop house, we watched as the kids and adults came pouring into a wooden shack across the way. I thought nothing of it until later they all came pouring out again, chatting in excitement. Cat explained this to me as something from her own childhood… they had all gone inside to pay a few Kip and watch the only telly in town.

Finally we said goodbye to Mr Pan and took the boat back to the mainland before briefly heading further south to Khon Phapeng Falls. These must be the biggest falls in South East Asia and this particular day after some of the heaviest rains of recent times with the waters of the Mekhong swollen to a high level, they were quite spectacular. The river rises 4,350 kilometers away in the Tibetan plateau and because of its sheer size is a major feature of this part of the world. Access to its waters is a critical source of potential friction and conflict. Many controversies surround it as the Chinese are constructing several dams on its upper reaches, constricting the flow of water downstream.

Some months back in the dry season when we looked down on the river from the cliffs at Pha Taem in Thailand, we saw mainly rocks and only a modest flow of water. The river was at its lowest for years with serious consequences. Now a few months later with the river in spate, it was difficult to reconcile these as one and the same river. Nothing I have ever seen in a life time of waterfalls has had the sheer arrogant power of these falls at Four Thousand Islands hidden down in the south of Laos.

Monday, 27 August 2007

Wat Phu, Champasak

The next stop on our holiday was the city or town of Champasak where we were going to stay before visiting the ancient khmer temple of Wat Phu. I’d expected a city or town at least as Champasak is a major province and the place has an illustrious past, but all we found was essentially a village. It has little more than a single street running along the bank of the Maekhong river, which is hardly troubled by more than the occasional bicycle.

Near the village is the site of an ancient city many eras old that makes this the centre of a major civilisation. Then construction of Wat Phu was started in the sixth to eighth centuries, finally being finished towards the end of the Ankor era between the ninth and thirteenth centuries. Finally Champasak was an independent kingdom from 1713 to 1811 and actually had three kings. Ultimately absorbed into the Kingdom of a Million Elephants, the royals were not forgotten and two large colonial style villas from the early twentieth century still stand next to their wooden country cousins in the main street.

This is indeed a laid back place in which a weary westerner can disappear from view. To get there, we crossed the great river which was brown and wide and fast flowing on one of the rough steel catamarans that carries trucks and traders to the other side. There we stayed at the Suchitra Guesthouse and had a comfortable air conditioned room for about US$15. The place is run by a large extended family, and we sat on the wooden terrace overlooking the brown expanse of the river and ate extremely well s they cooked and served and chatted. They are among the most well to do in the village, pulling in some tourist dollars, but even so with local wages at about US$40 a month they were distinctly interested by the idea of going to work in Thailand.

Wat Phu, the object of our visit is only a matter of minutes away, a run along rutted roads that bring you to the steep hillside where at first there seems very little to see, except a vehicle park and a modern museum building which has a good display of stones and carvings saved from the ruins.

While the central Khmer temple of Ankor Wat itself in Cambodia is monumental, Phimai and Khao Phnom Rong in Thailand are huge and well restored and teeming with people. On the other hand, Wat Phu is a quiet and romantic place of mossy ruins hidden under frangipani trees, where from time to time you discover as if for the first time some hidden corners and spectacular carvings. It’s a steep climb and for example, at the top level behind the main sanctuary there’s a Khmer style Trimurti of the Hindi triumvirate of Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma carved into the living rock.

Unless you follow the slightly trodden paths between the trees you will not find the strange carving of a crocodile which is incised into the rock rather than standing in relief. Its purpose is unknown, though it’s said that a man would fit into it and that human sacrifice might be indicated. Such a thought is so at odds with the peaceable atmosphere of the temple today.

We only had time for one full day in Champasak but it’s the sort of place one could settle into for some time with some books and music and explore the locality by bicycle, if boredom is not a concept that could spoil the innocence of the place. I’d love to soak it all up at leisure some time.

Samet, Samet But Different!

When daughter Anna flew in from UK with Will, after a night at The Atlanta in Bangkok, they took a bus straight to the beaches of Koh Samet, that little jewel of an island, so lovely yet so very close to the Big Mango. We then drove down to meet them and to bring them back to our village in Surin province and then on to Laos.

I'm always pleased to go back to Koh Samet because of its literary associations. It features of course in the works of the Thai epic poet, Sunthorn Plu and also in that remarkable novel by Andrew Hicks, aptly entitled, "Thai Girl".

This was the place, the very beach, where early on in my life of early retirement I sat up late and filled my notebooks with impressions of all I had encountered that were later to be stitched together into the most heart-rending of all Romeo and Juliet stories since R and J itself. Sadly Shakespeare never made it to Koh Samet but if he had, I'm sure he'd have written something similar.

Many blogs ago I posted a picture of Uluru or Ayers Rock in Australia with the added speculation that the Thai tourist authorities seemed to have constructed a replica of the rock in the sea off Samet just to amuse tourists staying at Ao Wong Duern. My photos do suggest a passing resemblance to Uluru but, as I remember, the replica was exact in every detail.

Thinking back to the moment some years back when this struck me so forcibly, I now am a little troubled. I'm asking myself what exactly I was on that particular night to make me so deluded. Or, even worse, should I say, 'that day'? At night it's so dark you can't see anything at all except the bright lights of the squid fishers shining out there in infinite inkiness.

Okay so this tiny islet isn't Uluru... it's 'same, same but different' as they like to say in Thailand.

Saturday, 25 August 2007

A Waterfall in Southern Laos

Cat and I have just got back from a memorable trip to southern Laos with my daughter, Anna and son-in-law, Will. They have just endured the wettest summer in England's history, so I was on tenterhooks when I read that a depression in the South China Sea was about to drown this region just as they were arriving in Bangkok. Would the holiday on Koh Samet, in Surin and Laos be a wash-out?

As it transpired we did pretty well, especially as high water levels are just the job when you're going on what is essentially a waterfall crawl. There's nothing much in southern Laos except mountains and rivers and hence waterfalls and so that's exactly where we went.

First we escaped the heat for a few days and went up to the Tad Fane Resort on the Bolaven plateau for a few days. Living in beautifully appointed wooden chalets hidden in the trees, eating well at the round, wooden thatched restaurant, all the while cooled by swirling mists, it was a great place for a relaxing stay. Despite being the low season it was busy too and full of interesting travellers.

The reason for its huge popularity is clear though. Directly across the valley from the restaurant is the spectacular Tad Fane falls, consisting of two parallel streams that plunge 120 meters into the void below. As a waterfall freak with many under my belt including Niagara, I was very much impressed.

I've also made a date to go back there in the hot season. When it's dusty and baking here in Surin, a few days of cool will be balm to the soul, even if the falls are now only a trickle.

If these are the highest falls in Laos, our next stop was to be at the biggest falls in Laos, a veritable Niagara which as it turned out were carrying a bigger flow than for many a season. I shall not resist posting a picture or three.

Hong Kong's Airport Before Before

Tucked away in a drawer, I have several wood engravings taken from various issues of The Illustrated London News of 1857. These chronicle a naval engagement in Hong Kong waters between ships of the British navy which destroyed a fleet of Chinese junks with arrogant ease. The story shows how once proud sailing junks were obsolete technology and had become totally out-classed by the maneuverability and fire power of a modern steam-fired iron warship.

The junks were blown out of the water, China was humiliated in the ‘Opium Wars’ and soon was forced to sign the so-called ‘unequal treaties’ with England. These ceded Hong Kong and Kowloon as British colonies in perpetuity and granted a ninety nine year lease on the ‘New Territories’ that famously expired in 1997. Thus ten years ago, Hong Kong was ceremoniously handed back to China and an extraordinary chapter in world history came to an end.

The issue of The Illustrated London News of 9 May 1857, under the headline, ‘The War in China – Destruction of Piratical Junks’, recounts how on 16 February the English ships at Toong-Choong ‘fell in with four heavily armed mandarin boats… The Eaglet and boats from the Auckland went in and destroyed the junks. A battery on the shore mounting sixteen guns was captured and the guns spiked.’

To me these pictures are especially fascinating for a number of reasons, both personal and otherwise. I well remember Tung-Chung as one of my favourite places on Lantau, the biggest of Hong Kong’s many offshore islands. We’d take the ferry to Silvermine Bay, then wait for the tiny bus and bump our way along the twisty road, finally turning right and up the steep hill, over the mountain pass by Po Lin monastery and then begin the slow, windy descent down to the tiny fishing village of Tung-Chung.

There we’d wander round the fishing harbour, have lunch in one of the local village eateries and then visit the very same Ching dynasty fort that’s mentioned in the account of 1857. It was an atmospheric place, the solid stone walls strangel resembling the Great Wall in miniature, and from its top we could look out and for the very last time see a once commonplace but now remarkable sight.

Hong Kong was already the high-rise futuristic city that it now is, yet here before our eyes there was a farmer in conical straw hat ploughing his rice fields with buffaloes and a wooden plough. This was a unique throwback and one I shall never forget.

For some stiff exercise, we’d sometimes walk back up the mountain path to Po Lin monastery for a vegetarian lunch in the refectory, relaxed and happy and feeling a million miles from the pressures of Central district and Kowloon, the most heavily populated places in the world. Looking back as we walked, the whole of the bay was spread before us and beyond it the New Territories and China itself. This peaceful view has totally changed as the bay no longer exists.

At that time, Tung Chung was perhaps the most hidden and secret place in the whole of Hong Kong, though now it must be among the most visited. The reason is that this is the site of Shek Lap Kok, Hong Kong’s new airport.

If you look at one of my pictures, you’ll see the English gunboat steaming into the bay to confront the junks lying at anchor. On the left below the ridge of the mountains is the dark spine of a low island and that island is, at least was, Shek Lap Kok.

The runways of the airport now straddle the bay and the island itself was used as spoil for the necessary land reclamation. All that now remains of the island is its name. All that remains to tell of the naval engagement that happened there in 1857 is my wood engravings from The Illustrated London News.

At the time the airport was under construction, no mention was made that this was the site of a minor incident of colonial gunboat diplomacy in which China was trampled under foot. Perhaps the remains of the junks still lie deep beneath the runways and memories too have necessarily been suppressed.

Development of the airport was starting just as the handover of Hong Kong to China was being negotiated. As one of the world’s biggest civil engineering projects of all time, perhaps the biggest, so it was both a potential bonanza for the contractors and a financial burden for the new governors of Hong Kong. Assuring its success for all concerned was a major item on the negotiating table and the incident more than a century before perhaps an uncomfortable truth that was better not mentioned.

Now that things are no longer so sensitive following the smooth transfer of power and the success of the new airport, the truth and the engravings can finally come out of my drawer. They’ve been hidden from the world for long enough.

I’m very fond of them and had planned to keep them but perhaps I should be persuaded to part with them after all. I’ve just had to dip into my pension to build our new wooden house, not to mention buying the fish pond and setting up a frog farm, so are there any serious collectors out there?

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

A Pink Baby Buffalo

Having just returned from a trip shooting buffaloes in Southern Laos, I am now able to respond to overwhelming public demand and to post this picture of a pink baby buffalo.

In this part of the world, it is also common to bathe prize buffaloes in a bath of Ovaltine and I also attach a rare picture of this fascinating practice.

More later!

Sunday, 12 August 2007

Junks I Have Known and Loved

A junk trading under sail from China passes Hong Kong’s Lantau island in about 1979. Are the excavations on the island the beginnings of Discovery Bay, the upmarket residential complex?

The rare places where two different worlds collide are always extraordinary, bizarre even. One such I remember well was the arch-capitalist British colony of Hong Kong, a brash gold tooth amongst the decay and recession of communist China. For me, living there in the late seventies and early eighties was always stimulating and a constant challenge to the senses.

One of the strangest sights was when time-worn Chinese junks bound for the Pearl River estuary would slip into Hong Kong waters and pass through Victoria Harbour rather than take the long seaward passage around the island.

These junks were of rough unpainted wood, relying solely on their iconic bat-like sails as they had no auxiliary power. At the mercy of the strong winds and tides, they would come close inshore and wait for more favourable conditions before continuing. For their two man crew and their non-perishable cargoes of baskets, timber and bricks, time was of no importance.

How tough a life that must have been for the men, exposed to the elements on board with minimal shelter, always at risk of disaster and for minimal reward. How they must have gazed open-mouthed at this vast harbour, packed with all the ships of the world, the showy high rise buildings crowding the shore line and climbing the lower slopes of Victoria Peak.

As a display of capitalist excess, the most densely populated place in the world, the most successful city state in all of Asia, how they must have longed to see more, to swim ashore, to taste a slice of the action. Yet they would always sail on, tacking against wind and tide, patiently and almost imperceptibly inching forward along the shore line, remote observers from another world.

From our eleventh floor balcony facing west towards Cheung Chau and Lantau we could occasionally watch these bat-like apparitions as in silhouette they crossed the golden lane of shimmering sea that ran between us and the setting sun. They were tantalizingly distant but occasionally we ran alongside them and took some memorable photographs from our own sailing junk, the ‘Huan’.

This junk of 140 tons was several times larger than they and we ran her as a sail training charity called ‘the Adventure Ship’. One of my best experiences was crossing the South China Sea on a five day voyage to Manila in the Philippines with forty Hong Kong teenagers on board. Lying on the bow watching the dolphin cavorting on our bow wave, finding flying fish on the deck in the morning and sitting high on the poop deck as we ran before a force seven gale under full sail made all the hard work of setting up the organisation worthwhile.

Later when living in Singapore there were more junks to be photographed. From my office in the university, I could see them approaching the barter trade centre at Jurong on the south west of the island. This place was a nineteenth century throwback where Indonesian sailing vessels of all styles including junks sailed in from Sumatra and further afield bringing goods such as charcoal and mangrove stakes to be bartered for tinned food, soy sauce and cheap furniture.

As the crew had no papers, they were not allowed ashore and the centre was closed to visitors, but I was able to sail in on my own keelboat and photograph them, my Pentax clicking frantically. To watch an arriving crew drop sails and kedge their craft up the river by rowing the anchor a hundred yards ahead and then hauling on the line was an remarkable sight. To see the tired crews washing the salt out of their clothes and relaxing on board with a guitar was to eavesdrop on a yesteryear that is now all but extinct anywhere in the world.

This was an extraordinary point of contact between the slick modernity of Singapore and a Conradian world of rat-infested craft with creaking hulls and tattered sails facing the vagaries of wind and tide with a timeless optimism, perhaps unaware that theirs is the final chapter in a long and rich tradition of trading under sail.

When after five years in Singapore I found myself living back in England, a junk again became an important part of my life. For my sins I was chairman of the late lamented Exeter Maritime Museum and our largest operating exhibit was a replica of a traditional Cantonese fishing junk.

In 1992 we boldly took her down the Exeter ship canal and the Exe to the open sea. We crossed the channel, sleeping in the fish holds, rounded Ushant and joined the magnificent tall ships festival in Brest, the biggest and best ever. Coming into Brest watched by thousands on the harbour walls as we fired off red Chinese fire crackers from our stern and later sailing with a fleet of hundreds of historic and ethnic vessels to rally at the maritime museum at Douarnanez were high points in my eternal fascination with the sea and sailing ships.

Of course everything has been changing fast. Chinese coastal sailing boats are now made of concrete and are powered by diesel engines just like the rest, and the sailing junks I saw passing through Hong Kong are now almost certainly extinct. No Chinese would mourn their passing though they tell much that is important about China and its tortuous history.

The junk rig is still a design whose essence has hardly been bettered, though it goes back more than a thousand years. Its sails, stiffened with bamboo, anticipated the fully battened sails of modern yachts. The complex system of sheets attached to the end of each such ‘batten’ can be tweaked to eliminate the twist that still spoils the efficiency of many a modern sail and the design enables a single crew member to tack or reduce sail in heavy weather with comparative ease. One remembers how Blondie Hasler’s tiny folkboat ‘Jester’ successfully replicated the junk rig to win the first single handed transatlantic race.

The huge importance to China of the junk sail was that it was to beat into the wind and so could go anywhere and not be at the mercy of the trade winds, as square riggers always are. This breakthrough had enormous political and economic implications, allowing China’s sailors such as the legendary Cheng He, to expand the emperor’s influence and to trade with an expanding world.

It was many centuries before the Europeans began to catch up, beginning first with the Portuguese whose caravel rig could also sail to windward, thus enabling them to establish a colonial empire spreading from Brazil to Angola and Mozambique, Goa, Malacca and Macao. They were followed and eclipsed by the Dutch and then the British, but theirs was an extraordinary achievement for so small a nation, sadly tarnished by their reluctance to relinquish control of their colonies when the time for independence was overdue.

China was technologically advanced when Europe was nothing, yet China’s tragedy was that when Europe had its renaissance of ideas and a technological and industrial revolution, China remained an inward looking ‘middle kingdom’ and was stagnating in every way. With scholarship regarded as the mastery of classical knowledge rather than the search for originality and innovation, society was bound to ossify and to be overtaken, despite the earlier technological lead. Somehow the junks sailing into Hong Kong, once at the cutting edge and now dinosaurs, were metaphors for China’s brilliance and subsequent decline.

The Chinese emperors had thus been no match for the fire power of steam powered British gunboats. In the Opium Wars the junks were cut to pieces. China was humbled and forced to sign the ‘unequal treaties’ giving European access to its trade and ceding Hong Kong island to the British lion. Thus more than a century later, I came to lecture in law for seven years at The University of Hong Kong where two worlds still collide.

The story of Thailand and how it escaped formal colonization by the Europeans is very different indeed. Foreign visitors to Bangkok in the early nineteenth century would have seen Chinese trading junks forming a forest of masts, but by the end of the century the Chao Phraya River would have been dominated by European shipping. Nonetheless, Bangkok remains essentially a Chinese city, formed and influenced by its dominant Chinese population which today supplies the commercial dynamic of Thailand. Most of the migrants arrived a few generations back with no more than a mat and a pillow after a tough and dangerous passage on a small sailing junk.

Thailand’s fascination with the West, its technologies and trades, its political ideas and systems has continued, so that now Bangkok is a modern city. But despite the gloss of consumerism and increasing material wealth, the influence of the countryside, belief in the spirits and Buddhist traditions of tolerance and non-confrontation still perhaps make Thailand much more Asian than Western. Like everywhere, it’s changing fast but, thankfully, the Thai people seem to have a capacity for retaining its own special characteristics.

Thailand is an extraordinary place to live in as a foreigner. It truly is one of those rare places where two very different worlds coexist, if not collide. Just as China has lost its sailing junks, I wonder what Thailand will lose in the course of its own ‘modernisation’.

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

I Can't Stop Shooting Buffaloes

There are two reasons I can't stop taking pictures of buffaloes.

The first is that I really want to as they're so photogenic. The second is that I actually can. With my crazy digital camera, the shutter lag is so bad that if I snap anything much faster than a snail, the subject's gone by the time the shutter decides to open.

Buffaloes are great subjects as they don't go anywhere fast. They just stand and gaze at you, head down.

Maybe they like having their photo taken too.

An Eternity of Buffaloes

Water buffaloes are a veritable icon of South East Asia, and not least of all in relation to Isaan, the huge rump of dry country in the North East that is the largest part of what still remains of the ‘real rural Thailand’.

When a Thai calls someone, ‘kwai’, a buffalo, it’s a big, big insult. You can see the shock registering on the faces, which is surprising as they’re nostalgic about their buffaloes too. For generations it was the buffaloes that pulled the wooden ploughs through the wet ground to prepare the rice paddies and were so crucial to the whole way of life. The oxen were no good for ploughing as in wet conditions they have problems with their hooves, though they were strong enough to pull the traditional wooden carts.

A family buffalo often had a long working life so as a young adult working the land, your dour, four footed workmate could actually be older than you, a valued friend from your earliest childhood. The folk round here can be quite fond of their buffalo, talk to her by name and be sad to see her go when inevitably her time is up.

Go most of the buffaloes now have, the current population down to a small fraction of the former numbers. Sadly they have been superseded by the two wheeled tractor or ‘iron buffalo’ powered by a Korean Kubota engine which is used for ploughing, for towing trailers and as a power take-off for pumps and circular saws. Yet many buffalo still remain here in the Surin countryside for example and they are not a rare sight, as they wander head down in search of grazing or cool themselves in a muddy wallow beside the road.

Buffaloes are well adapted to local conditions, so long as water is available for wallowing. They don’t use diesel fuel and they’re much better than cows at converting poor quality feed such as rice straw or stubble. They are not worked any more, and have never been milked, so are now raised solely for meat.

I can see why the locals are so fond of their buffaloes. They’re quite attractive animals in a solemn sort of way and the calves can be distinctly cute. They’re good natured too and the kids ride them and play with them in the muddy water without coming to any harm. I’m really not sure why calling someone a buffalo is so rude.

Many families still have a buffalo or two, but they do not put them in a stock proof field as meadows for grazing do not exist. The buffaloes are simply taken out in the morning often on the end of a string, shepherded to any scrap of grass that can be found among the rice crops and on anybody’s land and then brought home again in the evening. It’s no picnic and ‘liang kwai’, looking after the buffaloes is a full-time job. The dry season is bit easier though as with no standing crops they can wander freely and may even be left to find their own way home as the sun falls in the west.

Raising stock is profitable here as there are virtually no costs involved, except providing a shed for the night. The animals multiply of their own accord and they eat free grass provided by the neighbours. The big cost is not in cash but in time, and you’ll need to have plenty of it. That’s where the old men step in.

When Papa gets old and weary from a lifetime’s toil, he hangs up his hoe and passes on his rice fields to his children. There’ll be no pension or Saga holidays for him and he never goes anywhere, so he has lots of time on his hands. Essentially he now has three options in deciding what to do with the rest of his life. All of these are essentially sedentary, solitary and contemplative.

Thus he can become a monk, he can take to the bottle or he can spend his days with the buffaloes and cows.

Taking the buffaloes out every day and watching them eat thus becomes a metaphor for the unhurried idyll of the fields, the reward at life’s end as the animals add weight and wealth slowly accumulates.

It’s really not a bad way to go and I’m in much the same situation as the old men around me, with time on my hands and not too much to do. Perhaps I should give up blogging and get myself a buffalo!

Sunday, 5 August 2007

A Big, Fluttery Butterfly

In Thailand a 'butterfly' is an unconscionable man who flits from flower to flower. Of course I've never ever been accused of being a butterfly myself, though the imagery is very much a part of teasy discourse in these parts where butteflies are universal. I'd almost forgotten the word had another meaning until I was reminded of it a couple of days ago.

Here when it's so hot and wet, everything breeds like crazy and there's a super-abundance of frogs, crabs and fish in the rice fields and the insects are quite spectacular. Apart from the biggest scorpions and poisonous millipedes I've ever seen, there are some enormous beetles with dinosaur horns and shimmering green wing casings. At night when you switch on an outside light, you can almost fill a busket with the insects that swarm and drop to the ground. Most of them you can eat, or at least they can.

Then there are butterflies of the fluttery kind, quite incredible and fortunately inedible, though the pupae found in banana leaves are often eaten.

We've just been visited by one of the biggest butterflies I've ever seen... it was like a bird as it homed in on our potted shrubs. At first attracted to the bright colours of the bourgainvillea, there was no joy there as the flowers are more like leaves and have no nectar. But there was plenty more to choose from.

Maybe it just wanted to be photographed because it kept on coming back. This was lucky because the shutter lag on my digital Pentax is so dreadfully bad that nine times out of ten it had gone by the time the shutter deigned to click. It's a horrible camera, though at least you don't have to pay for wasted film! And this time the butterfly always came back.

Or Did I Mean Frog Farm?

Yesterday Cat announced she was going into Sangkha market with her friend Naam who was back from university for the weekend. We normally go together and I'm not too keen on Cat using the motorbike, so I offered to take them in the pickup. But no, Cat was insistent they were going independently... a girls' trip out I guess.

Eventually they came back and I was astonished to see the amount of stuff she'd bought,squeezed between them on the motorbike. There was a huge bag of about twenty large heads of sweet corn, numerous bags hanging off the handle bars, a roll of plastic netting and one large and mysterious sack.

'Tirak ja! We not go Sangkha... go Khmen. Go with Naam's uncle's pickup.' So that's why they were so long.

'You went to the Cambodian border market? But why?'

'Buy all this. Very cheap! Very special.'

Yes, always very cheap. But what was so special?

Cat opened the big sack for me and there inside was a squirming mass of several hundred frogs. How lovely. Froggies! Just what I've always wanted!

After cooking some of them to eat with som tam, Cat then spent a hot and busy afternoon making a place for them to live in, a corral of plastic netting at one end of our new pond from which they've been told not to escape.

Frog's not bad, a bit like snake, but I find it so fiddly. The locals go crazy about it and Cat tells me it's very expensive and that our fortunes will now be made from breeding them. I contemplate a life of luxury on the proceeds, me a frog millionaire, a frog mogul. What are we going to call the company? Twenty First Century Frog?

Well, anyway, this'll keep Cat busy and she loves frog even if I don't. And like with the auntie who came wandering through the garden this morning with a plastic bag helping herself to the vegetables, they'll all be given away to family and friends. Cat'll generate a lot of face and it'll justify our privileged place here just a little. Proliferating protein and feeding frogs to Isaan folks is a better way for me to make merit than releasing captive sparrows any day.

How fortunate I am to have been given this opportunity to assure myself a better chance in the next life.

Thursday, 2 August 2007

Now It's A Fish Pond!

Cat and me are both quite tired after focusing on building the new wooden house for weeks on end and I’m longing not to be invaded by teams of workers every day. I want to be free of all the problems that constantly come up… they’ve run out of nails and want me to run them into Sankha, they need more varnish and I profoundly disagree with their choice of colour… and they want more alcohol. Do they really need a big bottle every day? Surely a small bottle would do!

Now suddenly I realize that the work's almost done and the house is substantially complete. Yes of course, there are loads of details to finish that won’t get done anyway, but it’s now all over bar the shouting.

Cat sweetly thanks me for being her ATM and tells me that the men won’t need to come to work tomorrow. I tell her how relieved I am, and please, please can we stop building and at last lead normal lives again? Please, no more projects, I beg her!

A little later that day Cat obviously has something important on her mind. I ask her what’s up and she looks a little worried.

‘Teerak ja! A’s mama want to sell fish pond next door. Very cheap. Only 30,000 baht.’

‘Cat, no, not again! Not so soon,’ I plead. ‘Didn’t I just say…?’

A is Cat’s very pleasant cousin whose family live in a house adjoining us. His mother is a teacher at the school but his father, formerly Cat’s teacher died a couple of years ago of liver failure. The family now has financial problems and in the usual way, selling a bit of land is the only quick solution. And of course if you’ve got a ‘wealthy’ farang living next door, then you’re in luck.

The pond is directly across our left hand boundary. It’s a murky, tangled mess of bamboo and jungle and while it could be useful securing our borders, I’m not sure I want to buy it very much. Most of all, what I don’t want is another hassle with all the work that’ll need doing. Though I have to admit that the pond is ridiculously cheap, less than it costs me to insure my flat in London for a year.

Though on top of the price, we’ll have to pay a team of men to cut back the forest and to fence it all off, to hire a digger to make it deeper and I guess we’ll have to build a Monet style bridge over it from which, in our idle moments, to feed the fishies.

Cat’s a persuasive sort and sure enough, the workers were back the next day to get started on the pond. I think I’ve managed to veto the digger but I’ve paid for my first ever pond and we’re now going for all the luxury add-ons.

‘We’ve got lots of wood left over from building the house,’ says Cat, ‘so we might as well build the bridge. We’ll only need some concrete legs and grass roofing to go over the top.’

Yes, yes, of course we do! It’s all getting more elaborate by the moment.

I’ve since been fighting a rearguard action to stop them cutting down all the trees and bamboo round the pond that nicely shades the new wooden house. And I can’t stop them burning things directly under the trees which are now all brown and scorched. It’ll all grow back, Cat tells me. Yes, but it’s going to look horrible for months, I grumble.

In these parts, ponds are not only for fish but also for storing stashes of illegal timber, and A and his brothers have been up to their waists in the murky water pulling it all out and piling it on the bank.

With superb timing, Cat’s brother Saniam now wanders in with a policeman in tow which is making me feel distinctly nervous. We still have piles of newly cut bootleg timber under the house and he’s snooping around like a shark in his ‘one size too small’ uniform clutching his two-way radio, a gun strapped firmly to his right buttock.

Cat later tells me he’s from Mama’s family which is a bit of a relief. Apparently he was admiring the new house and was easily sweetened with a small consideration.

It crosses my mind that memoirs written by farang convicts incarcerated in Bangkok jails do sell extraordinarily well, though on balance I’m glad I haven't been given the chance to write one. I'll happily stay here, especially as the whole pond project’s growing on me now, I have to admit.

It’s all looking cleaner and bigger and I can see the fish flipping around down in the water. They’re not very big but we’ve already had two meals from them. And a big plus, on the far side there’s also a free wooden pig house thrown in for good measure.

Or could the pig house perhaps be a minus? It's half falling down and I suppose it means that as soon as the work on the pond’s finished, we’re going to have to repair the damned thing. After all, we’re sure to order far too much wood for the bridge, so as we’ll have lots of wood to spare, we’ll have to use it so we don’t end up in jail.

And if we’ve got a decent pig house, I guess it’d be pretty silly not to get some pigs right away and fatten them up while we’re eating fish. Another project looms!

Cat’s logic is always impeccable and I find my ability to resist her slowly weakening as I slip further into my dotage. It's the will to resist that's slipping too.

But then why should I resist anyway? I like it here.