A Trip on Bangkok’s Waterways

 

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Like all great cities of the world Bangkok has a river, the Chao Phraya, which flows through Bangkok and on into the Gulf of Thailand. Cities often begin their existence where there is water not just for living but for transport too and Bangkok is no exception. Off the Chao Phraya flow innumerable canals and small tributaries known as Klongs. Many of the klongs have now been filled since they were not exactly healthy, but there are sufficient left to give you a great alternative look at Bangkok, at what became know as the Venice of the East although that name might not quite be valid today.

 

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Travelling on water sets you slightly apart from the world that borders the water, and in Bangkok that helps you to see the city without the danger of being run over! The river is wide, busy and carries you through the heart of Bangkok, through the history of the city combined with a view of the modern metropolis of office blocks and hotels. And once toy have done that divert into the networks of canals that subdivide, criss cross and are a labyrinth. There is every kind of boat including some that seem to be driven by outboard engines taken from large lorries.

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Bangkok is famous for its floating market on the canals which is often crowded being a favoured tourist destination but away from the you find sellers on small boats floating slowly down the canals in search of business. ~The sellers are often gentle faced ladies earning a crust, but they drive a hard bargain and are very persistent. They will sell you a drink a souvenir and if they don’t have what you ask you they will persuade you to spend your money on something else, or at least try to.

 

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Where there are rivers people live, and the canals are lined with old houses leaning over the banks of the canals jammed together, constructed haphazardly and remaining there for generations. Some even collapse into the canals and lie there a forlorn reminder of previous inhabitants. Wander in amongst those houses and you find networks of alleys and small streets and walk past people washing and cooking I the street, or plying their trade selling or making small things.

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The canals are in all the various parts of the city, the water grey, turgid and not smelling of roses, but the life that is around them goes on as it has for generations. It is not difficult to walk a short distance from all the symbols of the modern Bangkok and find the canals and people living there, hidden away , seemingly separated from modern Bangkok but still actively part of it.

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The canals are a fascinating world of seeming tranquillity in the heat and noise of Bangkok, the houses and buildings look forgotten but they are not, and aside from the Bangkok of condos and blocks of flats its another world, another Bangkok to see.

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The Travel Bore

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I learned a long time ago that when returning from a journey, heart and mind filled with reflections on the things I have seen, people met, the places explored, the scents, emotions, secrets and sensations experienced, its really not good to talk about it too much.

Camera loaded with amazing photos, tales of people met, places seen and dangers overcome fill you, as you sit comfortable in the knowledge that you have something very special to offer now that you are home again and with friends. There is a fine point between simply saying that the travel was great and being a travel bore. Even sitting with another traveller it can become a competition trading the most beautiful, the most ugly, the highest, longest and most dangerous, oh and of course the oldest. Comparing notes on outlandish activities you would not do at home, and the sensuality of travelling is not wise, its easy to become a travel bore.

How much people really want to know you have to gauge. How many times people say would love to see your photos, but still they are unseen by all but you, except for one with a fabulous beach which is all they seem to want to see. You wonder why, you are slightly hurt. You have the wonders of the world to lay at your audience’s feet, but somehow they dont really want to know. “They are envious” you whisper to yourself, “they don’t care, they don’t understand”, but in truth they know that if you start you will never stop, and they will have nothing to say because for them such things are abstract compared to the appalling weather we have been having lately. You can hope that one day they will come to you and say “tell me all about Timbuctu” and then you can expound, but in truth they just want to know where you were and whether you enjoyed it. You are safe returned, that is enough. To hear the rest would be unsettling. So here is an ode to the travel bore!

The Traveled Man

SOMETIMES I wish the railroads all were torn out,

The ships all sunk among the coral strands.

I am so very weary, yea, so worn out,

With tales of those who visit foreign lands.

When asked to dine, to meet these traveled people,

My soup seems brewed from cemetery bones.

The fish grows cold on some cathedral steeple,

I miss two courses while I stare at thrones.

I’m forced to leave my salad quite untasted,

Some musty, moldy temple to explore.

The ices, fruit and coffee all are wasted

While into realms of ancient art I soar.

I’d rather take my chance of life and reason,

If in a den of roaring lions hurled

Than for a single year, ay, for one season,

To dwell with folks who’d traveled round the world.

So patronizing are they, so oppressive,

With pity for the ones who stay at home,

So mighty is their knowledge, so aggressive,

I ofttimes wish they had not ceased to roam.

They loathe the new, they quite detest the present;

They revel in a pre-Columbian morn;

Just dare to say America is pleasant,

And die beneath the glances of their scorn.

They are increasing at a rate alarming,

Go where I will, the traveled man is there.

And now I think that rustic wholly charming

Who has not strayed beyond his meadows fair.

 

Ella Wheeler Wilcox 1896

 

The Politics In Travelling

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All the panic, noise and general hysteria about the Brexit vote got me to thinking about travelling and the extent to which politics affects our view of a place we come to or a place we leave. Do we consciously think about politics when choosing a destination, what effect does it have when we are there, do we change our opinion about a place because of the prevailing political wind? I have visited perfect democracies, rabid dictatorships, autocratic empires, tribal fiefdoms, and how have I dealt with the politics that I have found, has it affected me at all, should it?

 

Do the images of a place that we receive from considered journalism reflect what we find, is journalism too much of a microscopic examination of a place? Are we too detached when we visit somewhere and do we turn a blind eye to what is around us in pursuit of the experiences we seek from travelling? Do we have an obligation to tailor our travel plans to our sense of decency or fairness, or are we free to do what we want, go where we want and in doing so give some quiet unintentional support to things we don’t really approve of? Is there some moral obligation on us, does our presence exacerbate what is wrong or alleviate it?

 

I have seen, following this vote, how people across different countries who before felt at ease together now call names and are angry. There is this strange sense of rejection on the one hand and liberation on the other, similar to the end of human relationships, that has suddenly come forth in an outpouring of bitterness on the one hand and exhilaration on the other.

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There are a lot of questions here and I don’t really know the answer. I suppose to an extent we compromise. When it suits us we are simply observers of where we are and don’t judge, or alternatively we feel detached and say well this is bad but its nothing to do with me. Perhaps we say this is bad and something must be done but what do we do about it? Certainly whatever we think we don’t usually intervene, we accept what we find and move on. We store the experience in memory and it may affect our own approach to life but that is in our own minds and our own place.

 

When we travel to a place do we simply feel as outsiders come to visit or does traveling, by it’s a nature, engender a sense that we are really not from one corner of the world but we are citizens of the whole world? Wherever we stop we feel part of the landscape, and accept what is around us. In doing that we can feel part of the other person’s world, and perhaps we can act, or, we can cop out and just look and move on.

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Does travelling have any effect in any way? Maybe. In the words of Maya Angelou, “Perhaps travel prevents bigotry, but, by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.” I hope so.The

 

 

Beach Life

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Many years of travels have taught me that there is something mystical about beaches. I don’t know anyone who does not love the beach. We can complain about crowds or pebbles or litter but we all love the beach.

 

For some it’s a place to chill, relax, do nothing, sunbathe, watch the world, feel at one with our friends, enjoy family, make friends, have a sense of luxury, feel we are “somewhere else”, surround ourselves with the sounds of the beach, the crunch of sand, the dull ring of pebbles, the whisper of the sea, the roar of the ocean and the whipping sound of the wind on water. It’s a place where we lose a bit of our sense of time, where we don’t feel guilty about doing nothing. It is as someone said the “apotheosis of loafing”

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For others it’s a playground, a place to swim, surf, sail, splash, run, walk, a place where we feel that we realise what nature gives us for pleasure and make use of it, all for free. We feel that we are part of nature and to see a surfer on an empty beach early in the morning is to see someone at peace, someone who feels a part of the beauty and tranquility of nature but knows its power.

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Then there are those who find solitude on the beach, they walk, feel and above all think. They are in the one place where all the very elements of life itself come together, the water, the sky, the earth and the air, they are at one with it, liberated from the world and able to think with a clarity that daily life does not allow. They feel free . “To go out with the setting sun on an empty beach is to truly embrace your solitude”

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We lie on beaches, we sleep on beaches, we camp on beaches, we walk to and from beaches, we endure crowds and jams to get to the beach, we travel far and wide to find the perfect beach for us, we anticipate for months in advance our next visit to the beach and when we get there we are never disappointed. We read of beaches, drool over photos of beaches, and long for that life free of the cares of the world where we can stroll out of our front door onto a beach of white sand, and then into crystal clear turquoise water that we seem to feel we can own.

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“In every outthrust headland, in every curving beach, in every grain of sand there is the story of the earth.” We just love the beach.

Costa Rica – Caribbean Coast

 

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The Caribbean coast of Costa Rica is far less developed than the more famous Pacific Coast. It has been more isolated for centuries and retains much of the natural wilderness that has existed for centuries. Its wet, tropical, a world of dense vegetation, blue sea, natural variety and abundant wild life.

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The main centre, the provincial capital is Limon, the largest port in Costa Rica. and north and South of Limon range tropical wildernesses including the Tortuguero National Park in the north and Chauita National Park in the south

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The jungle meets the ocean on this Caribbean coast, sandy beaches folding into dense jungle filled with wildlife and plants

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The area’s multiculturalism creates a unique atmosphere, with about 1/3rd of the local population being of Jamaican descent combined with indigenous Costa Rican people alongside, giving a flavour of life, culture, music and habits which is very special. Much of this can be found in Puerto Viejo, a surfing centre and town where the cultural mix finds expression in music and life.

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The wildlife is abundant including sloths, and the green jungle surrounds everything. Small hotels and guest houses are carved into that jungle, their development restricted to preserve the environment, and you wake to the sound of monkeys shouting in the trees beside your window.

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On the way were some Iguanas resting in a tree alongside a road bridge. Despite being quite small at first sight, they can look scaly and sinister but then their faces have an almost alien quality that almost smile at you with beady eyes that shine. They are mesmerising and gentle and look at you with an enigmatic smile. You can wonder whether they are nature’s version of the grumpy old man.!!

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The area is a step back in time to an equality between humans and nature.

 

To Coron

 

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About 45 minutes from El Nido on Palawan island, is the village of San Fernando, 2000 people living in beauty where nothing much changes and life is boats and fishing. The starting point for the ferry ride to Coron from that part of Palawan, a 7 hour journey through the sea on a large Bangka. the ubiquitous indigenous Pilipino boat. A shuttle boat with outboard loads the Bangka, offering wooden benches under the roof, and above on the roof, an awning under which people sleep away the hours protected from the hot sun.

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Like all departures this has its anticipation and expectation, what will be the experiences, what new vistas. But first departure is delayed by a customs inspection to check papers and compliance with safety rules, safety rules being particularly how many passengers and to make sure everyone wears a life jacket, although once these guys have gone that seems to slip down the list of priorities and people spread themselves through the boat and lie on the roof. The customs men are young, well dressed wearing matching pink polo shirts with Customs written on them, and of course wearing shades. They look suitably serious and fierce, a look somewhat belied by the braces on the teeth of one of them. As they march down the boat to leave they flirt with the girls on the boat and are gone. The journey settles into a familiar rhythm that takes hold of the passengers.

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The Bangka motors its way through the sea past myriad small islands and lsets, some of the 7107 which comprise the Philippines, the distinction between islands and islets having nothing to do with size, simply the fact that an islet has no vegetation. Passengers either sleep or fall into the stupor of a long journey through the sea, lost in their meditations and watching the islands and their different characteristics, and shelter from the sun. Its one of those travelling times when you feel completely disconnected from everyday life, and you can revel in the freedom of your thoughts untainted by practicalities. The rhythm is interrupted by lunch, a small plate of adobo for all the passengers, cooked on a gas ring at the stern. A stop at one of the larger islands brings that sense of a spacial moment to the passengers, but just a routine ritual to the boatmen, off load, on load, a few new passengers, and then without any particular schedule, we move on.

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Coron is a relatively large islands already famous for its use as a naval base in the war and the battles fought there, its natural harbour surrounded by hills and mountains shadowing the blue waters. The town itself curves round the bay and climbs up the hill looking down across the harbour and water. There is a big market and streets, narrow and filled with people and the roar of tricylces. Coron is a diving mecca attracting people from all over. The town itself has that special energy of all Philippine towns, crowded busy and at night the restaurants and bars fill. There is great local food, amazing seafood, coconuts, good beer and a special atmosphere. Outside the town, after a tricycle trip up into the hills through small villages, is a hot springs from the volcanic source of the islands, right beside the sea. Tourism does not intrude excessively on the town with many hotels outside it.

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It was election time, the town festooned with the poster of the candidates, but life there is framed by the characteristics you come to find in that country. Simplicity, a friendliness its sometimes hard to believe, pride, energy, the capacity to ignore time, intuition, acceptance, a temper when its necessary and a love of life. Its airport is a gateway back to Manila and our real life, but maybe real life is in Coron.

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TO EL NIDO – AND BEYOND Philipinnes

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Take a bus or shuttle van from Puerto Princessa to El Nido, through hills with distant views of the sea, the blue green contrasting with the pure deep blue of the sky. Through small villages whose function is to support the subsistence farmers who growing rice and enough to sustain themselves supported by their Carabao, a breed of water buffalo that does the heavy work of ploughing as well as being a mark of some limited wealth, the national animal of the Philippines. The journey time is approximate, 4 to 6 hours, about 150 miles It depends on the roads, how many times people feel like stopping, how crazy the driver is, but you will get there eventually and after all time doesn’t have quite the same meaning in the islands. It will be worth it. Have a break at a roadside café, eat some adobo, enjoy the view and the friendliness.

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If you are into nature and eco systems, El Nido is perfection, beaches, caves pristine seas teeming with life, snorkelling, diving, boats and island hopping in a setting that is unrivalled. El Nido is getting well known, and in the summer its busy and full, becoming a must go destination for a lot of backpackers and others. But if you want something that is more unique move beyond El Nido itself. 30 to 40 kms past El Nido, on a dirt road you come to the village of Sinabungan, reached by a dirt road down a steep hill, leading from the road to the sea. The villages along the coast there are real habitations, and in tourist terms, just waiting to happen.

 

It’s a world with limited phone coverage and limited wifi and once you get your head round that and stop panicking its paradise. The pace of life is whatever you want to make it, there are no notice boards with rules, find out what there is to eat that day and enjoy it, have a few drinks in the warm night, savour the splash of water on the boat, hook up with fellow travellers, hook into the local grapevine about where to go and how, and what to do, create your own journey because everyone there is so tuned to showing you everything. Experience tolerance and curiosity and sink into freedom. Learn the culture and feel the adjustments in your head.

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The small hotels are owned by local families, simple but everything you need. Sleep in a bamboo hut with the quiet noise of the sea. The solar generated electricity only works from 6pm to 6 am but really who needs it? That’s a hotel called Tapik. Nestling on the side of a hill, your focus is the sea, islands in every direction, long seemingly endless stretches of sand, and a sense of remoteness that really turns you round. Its bamboo and coconuts, fishing boats and large families, the changing colour of the sea and stunning sunrises over water as smooth as glass. Lie in a hammock and watch the world. In cities people walk to go somewhere, here they seem to walk just for the pleasure, with little sense of time.

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Take a boat and wander round a few small islands, the classic desert islands, largely uninhabited, where your contemplation might only be interrupted by a small pig wandering out of the bushes. Snorkel from the boat, cook some food on the beach and eat it in a background of white sand and turquoise sea, find one that only exists at low tide where any buildings are on stilts for high tide. The small islands are all different and you can take you choice. Don’t swim near the boat the jellyfish are attracted to the heat of its engine. You learn that stuff. Enjoy the feeling that the only real definition of time is the setting sun. Bask in the isolation of the sea and then return to the shore at a place where the people who look after you live from the sea, its their livelihood. You will remember the beauty the people and the pace of life and it will change you.

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Its easy to immerse yourself in the community, large families all of whom have their place. It’s a conservative country where large families are at the core of life. They gather together, live together, work together, enjoy life together and crave simplicity. Such simplicity does not make you rich but it makes you happy. You can be alone and just think, meet people and learn, or have a party.

 

This is a place just waiting to be discovered and as you contemplate the scene and how it makes you feel, so you get this regret at what the place might become with hotels dotted along the pristine beaches. But who are we to stop the inhabitants making the most of their community?

PALAWAN- Puerto Princessa

 

The island of Palawan is a one hour flight south west from Manila. The north of the island is in the South China sea and the south the Sulu sea. This you need to experience if you love island life, island hopping, diving, nature and experiencing desert islands. Its relatively undiscovered but that is changing fast so the sooner you go the better.

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The Provincial Capital, Puerto Princessa, a typical provincial town with a small airport, is the gateway to hidden treasures. Malls, lots of restaurants, a million tricycles and Jeepneys, and lots of local people about their business. Take tricycles, easy to find, quick to move and cheap. Not good for the lungs, but a perfect street level experience of life. Philippine driving is an experience in itself, highly aggressive but tolerated by all the drivers. Sit in a tricycle and watch the driver compete one on one for a small gap in the traffic with a lorry, a moving experience!! The Philippines is a land of negotiation and tips. Hone your skills and be prepared. If you can move around with local people so much the better or the cost of a tricycle grows exponentially each time you use it. Lots of restaurants, and bars but at the end of town is the Baywalk, at night the best place to eat with lots of open air restaurants set up as in a market, with great food, great atmosphere and a real slice of Phillippine life. A great one is Boyet, fish and seafood laid out for you to choose and have cooked while you wait, the price so good you can feel proud you are spening the money. The other end of town is Blessies Bamboo Huts, a small hotel, entirely ecologically made, where the rooms are bamboo huts with bedroom and bathroom built in a courtyard in which is a butterfly garden. Just opff the main road into town, pick up tricycles outide the front door to go anywhere and you can get a lift from the door to any excursion. Family owned and brilliant people.

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Go island hopping. Pick up a boat at the harbour and take a day or more to visit 3 or 4 small islands, snorkling, scuba diving, sit on white sand by turquoise waters disturbed only by the odd wild pig running around. The boatmen make traditional Philippine food. It’s a languid lazy experience but allowing you to use as much energy as you feel in the water and exploring. Move from island to island and include a visit to an island only visible at low tide where any buildings are on stilts.

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All Filipinos are curious, friendly, accepting and helpful. They are comfortable in their culture natural surroundings and love to show it to you. The experience of eating food is a highlight and Filipino food simple but really tasty. You have to enjoy rice!

The Puerto Princessa Subterranean River National Park is a must. A world heritage site, pride of place is the underground river, 24 kms of caves and 8 kms of a river that flows into the West Philippine sea. Take a boat and experience it, a world of huge caves rock formations, bats, echoes, and a softly flowing river carrying you along. The park is an hour or so from the city a drive through thinly inhabited hills, along empty white beaches, seeing birds, mangroves and rivers. The underground river itself is an introduction to real darkness, remoteness and silence and the rock formations and size of caves carved over millions of years just inspire awe. As you sit in the boat you are aware of the river beneath you, coursing endlessly to the sea, and understand this is something that happens whether humans are there or not. Nothing we can do except look and feel

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Like any journey you arrive in a place and tell your self you will stay for 2 or 3 or however many days it is, but by the time you leave Puerto you are tuned to the island and the lotus life, and really want to stick around, but other even more fascinating places beckon.