From Vancouver to Barbados

We touched down briefly in Vancouver on our way to Barbados; the crisp cold air was a nice change from the humid heat of Pattaya as long it was sunny. But, when the weather changed to rain and slushy snow and cold, biting wind, the novelty quickly wore off. However, we were very happy to be able to visit with some friends and family before once again hitting the road; unfortunately, we weren’t able to see everyone. Here are a few photos of the neighbourhood, taken while we were in residence at the Sandman Suites on Davie.

The snow capped mountains looked absolutely stunning. We left Sunday evening at 10:30, arrived after four and a half hours in Toronto,

and then, after a couple of hours layover time, five and a half hours later landed in Barbados to warm, sunny weather – beautiful!

After grabbing a minivan cab, we were deposited at the Coconut Grove Beach Hotel in Hastings, Christ Church Parish, near the capital of Bridgetown.

The hotel is located in the Garrison Heritage area, a Unesco site, right on a lovely white sand beach protected by a rocky breakwater from the crashing, and gorgeous, cerulean blue waves beyond.

Monday night is barbeque buffet night at the Coconut Grove and the entire population of the 120 room hotel emerged promptly at 6 pm for a feed. Along with the food, we were serenaded by a group of local musicians stationed poolside.

Tuesday saw us up and out the door and walking down the street towards Bridgetown,

past several closed and condemned hotels, as well as brightly painted resorts and bars, glistening jewel-like against the bright blue sky. Architectural references to the British Colonial period are everywhere here, as are military forts and installations. We walked as far as the edge of Bridgetown, then back along the beach,

past old gun battlements and breakwaters made from 18th century guns. After a walk through a couple of buildings, and along a grassy path, we climbed down from the gun battlements at the beachfront Hilton,

had a beer at their bar, and, once back at the ranch, had a rest and a swim at the Coconut Grove beach before being chased off the beach by a passing thunder storm.

See more photos here.


Pattaya Hill and Big Buddha Temple, Pattaya, Thailand

At the top of Pattaya Hill a left turn brought us to the home of Pattaya Radio, a small temple, and the monument to HRH Admiral Krom Luang Jumborn Khet Udomsakdi, while a right turn took us to Wat Phra Yai with Pattaya’s 15 meter tall Big Buddha.

The Navy’s temple is home to many beasts, especially young dogs and cats (one of whom looked very much like our cat Aran, except “he” was a pregnant she),

and a sign-posted “wild monkey” chained by the neck to his perch in a tree, a sight which was very distressing. Why would the monks or temple workers chain up this poor creature who looks like he’s about to expire? He may be wild but could he not be returned to the forest to live out his days with other animal companionship?

The Admiral’s monument occupies the highest point of Pattaya Hill and is also the site of a shrine with many, many elephant, horse, zebra, dancing warrior, and rooster models, so many that the shrine has had to be extended with a long metal table to accommodate the overflow.

After wandering around this hill for a bit, and admiring the expansive view out over Pattaya City and Bay, we walked back down the hill along a newly-made cement path through the woods, then up again to the Big Buddha.

The big guy sits at the top of a long set of steps guarded by two freshly-painted golden Naga serpents. Along with BB are several other Buddha statues, including nine that represent the different days of the week.

The Buddhists believe that saying a few words to the Buddha born on the same day as oneself will bring one good luck. As well, the belief is that:

•Monday’s Buddha will bring peace.

•Tuesday’s Buddha will give peaceful sleep.

•Wednesday’s Buddha means one is a giving person.

•Thursday’s Buddha allows one peace of mind to meditate.

•Friday’s Buddha will give happiness.

•Saturday’s Buddha will ensure protection from the elements.

•Sunday’s Buddha will search for the needy and care for them.

At the entrance to the temple, young girls sell tiny birds in cages which, judging from the empty cages left behind next to the various Buddhas, quite a few people were inspired to set free. This practice is supposed to bring one luck, but the more birds that are sold, the more that will be caught and caged … what happens to the unsold birds?

See more pics here.

Sanctuary of Truth, Pattaya

Pattaya’s Sanctuary of Truth is a somewhat bizarre and remarkable creation built on the shore of Rachvate Cape, Naklua, Pattaya, Thailand. The brainchild of an eccentric Thai billionaire named Lek Viriyaphant, it is built entirely of teak wood and designed to “showcase Thai culture and ingenuity”. To visit it Ty and I hopped aboard a songthaew in Jomtien and, about half an hour and 40 baht later, hopped off in Naklua, north of Pattaya, for a shortish walk down Soi 12 to the Sanctuary. On the way we stopped briefly for a drink and a chat with a misanthropic German expat at a roadside shop: when we chatted with him he had two empty beer bottles in front of him and a terrible scowl on his face; when we passed by again two hours later, he had eight and a terrible scowl on his face – must be all that living in paradise.

Arriving at the sanctuary we were greeted with a huge wall adorned with carvings and a large parklike compound within, featuring horse-drawn buggies, crowds of Thai boy scouts, elephants, goats, chickens, and weathered wood carvings.

Once down a set of stairs we were given white hardhats to wear, since the sanctuary, begun in 1981, is an ongoing work-in-progress.

One of the founder’s intentions is that visitors should be able to appreciate the amount and kind of work that goes into a creation of this magnitude. From walking around the outside, it seemed as if one entire wing of the building has just been erected fairly recently; artisans are still busy with the interior and exterior carvings in this area.

The ocean front sanctuary has the design of a traditional Thai temple and is 100 meters high by 100 meters wide. No nails were used in its construction; instead, the artisans have followed traditional wood building techniques, such as tongue in groove, to erect the structure.

It’s pretty easy to see from the colour of the wood which are the newer areas; in the older sections the teak wood is grey, weathered, and cracked, while in the newer it’s still quite a bright orange-red. Each of the four wings of the building has a particular theme related to ancient knowledge and eastern philosophy; however, from my reading of the explanatory panels, I can’t say that I actually understand exactly what these themes are, or how the carvings illustrate them – something has been lost in translation. To illustrate what I mean, here’s a blurb from the Santuary’s website:

The purposes of decoration with wooden carve sculptures
are to use art and culture as the reflection of Ancient Vision of Earth,
Ancient  Knowledge,  and  Eastern Philosophy. With in this complex,
visitors  will  understand  Ancient  Life,  Human  Responsibility, Basic
Thought, Cycle of living, Life Relationship with Universe and
Common Goal of Life toward Utopia.

In any case the carvings themselves are fabulous, as is the architecture and design of the sanctuary. Almost every square inch inside is covered in carved images of gods and goddesses, as well as effigies of the planets, floral motifs, and the like. The iconography of the religious imagery, drawing from and illustrating the four major influences on Thai culture – Buddhist, Chinese, Khmer, and Hindu – is very similar to that of Roman Catholicism, from Edenic paradises,

to mothers holding babes, to what look like swirling angels surrounding Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Similarly, the ceiling roundels reminded me very much of the kinds of art on cathedral domes.

Indeed, the whole place has the visual impact of a cathedral, in size, scale, and complexity of design. I thought the Sanctuary was fabulous, even though I could not fully understand its educational program, given language issues (perhaps I should have opted for the guided tour …).

The compound also houses a carving centre where we were able to watch many people working on the various elements.

See more pics here.

See the Sanctuary’s website here.

Day-tripping to Koh Larn

Pattaya is starting to grow on me, especially now that we’ve found a better beach area to the north of where we’d been sitting before. This area, accessed by walking past the main drag that turns right to Pattaya proper, has many more trees, more shade, and, best of all, real sun loungers rather than beach chairs (we are so spoiled!). It’s not quite as crowded as the main Jomtien Beach area, although this is relative, since everywhere here seems full of people this high season.

While vendors do ply the sand here, they come in fewer and slower waves than further south where they are incessant. Still, the calls to buy are almost nonstop here; on offer are:

Food: fruit, seafood (fresh crab and shrimp which is cooked right at your chair), donuts and poon (?), ice cream (one vendor’s voice is so nasal it’d cut glass as he calls “Ice ceam, ca!” every 10 seconds)

Clothes: sun dresses, shorts, men’s t-shirts; sunglasses; baseball caps

DVDs and second hand books in English and German

Massage, manicure and pedicure

Souvenirs and wooden carvings; toy birds; jewellery; plush animals; cotton candy

One of the more unusual purchases here are tiny wooden cages of tiny finch-like birds which, for 100 baht (about $3.75), buyers set free. Although I intense dislike this practice, I did purchase one small cage of birds to release.

Yesterday Ty discovered that there’s a small “coral” island just 7 km off the coast of Pattaya that can be easily visited on a day trip, so, with 25 minutes to catch the 10 am ferry, we were out the door, into a taxi, and down to Bali Hai pier, just in time to pile onboard  the already seemingly full wooden ferry heading out to Koh Larn.

We settled ourselves at the stern as the boat headed out to sea, passing another similar vessel stranded just outside the harbour (not sure what happened to it but this ferry, too, was packed to the gunnels).

After stopping twice to allow passengers to disembark into longtail boats at two different beaches, we pulled up to Samae Beach, from which several long tails roared, pulled up alongside our vessel, picked up the mass of people pouring off the decks and out of the windows, and ferried all of us to the dock. The dock itself is made from blue plastic blocks which undulate as the waves strike it.

Once on the beach, we found ourselves ushered into deck chairs from which we could watch the passing parade.

The water here is gorgeous, that incredible light cerulean blue that I loved in the Andaman Sea, and clean, with a very large swimming area roped off from boat traffic. On both sides of the beach are green and rocky hills with viewpoints; one has a viewing pavilion, a large sting-ray shaped building in which are the controls for the island’s wind and solar power, and a couple of shrines.

The other has many small windmills, only two of which were working on this day. Along one side of the coast a raised wooden walkway has been built.

It is possible to stay overnight on the island, although at 2,500 baht for a pretty basic bungalow, it’s very expensive, at least on this beach.

Apparently, about 1,000 people live on Koh Larn full-time and many hundreds of people visit daily during high season. Various styles of ferry travel here, as do speed boats.

The ferry we piled on to return later in the afternoon was a top-heavy style, to my eyes too tall for its breadth. And, as usual, the vessel was absolutely jam-packed. I’m not sure how many people were actually on it – perhaps 200. And there were certainly not enough life jackets for all; none of the seats downstairs had lifejackets anywhere near them. When I saw the structure of the boat, I yanked two life vests from their stowage spot on the roof for Ty and I. These had been stuffed behind one of the metal rods holding up the roof canopy and took me quite a few minutes to dislodge (and certainly if the vessel had begun to capsize, because of the way they’re wedged in, I doubt they would have been available for use). Interestingly, only one other person had a life-jacket actually on her person.

As we pulled away, most of the people on the main deck were leaning on one of the side rails, causing the boat to list quite dramatically; at this point the captain stopped, came back, and admonished people to sit down before the thing capsized … sigh.  The water was very choppy with fair size waves and several times the captain had to slow the vessel down as it started rocking from side to side; after the first time this happened, I put on my life jacket and one of the men seated near us in the back also grabbed one for his son. Thankfully, we made it across the strait in one piece. Just another day here in SE Asia … it’s all good until the boat goes down.

Read more about Koh Larn here.

See more pics here.

Nong Nooch Tropical Botanic Garden, Pattaya

Since today was the first day of the two day Pattaya Water Sports Festival on Jomtien Beach, with screaming fast and loud jet skis ridden by cowboys flashing through the water, Ty and I decided to get out of town and visit the Nong Nooch Tropical Botanic Garden, about 20 kms away. We hired a song thaew to take the two of us there and back and zipped along the highway to the gardens, as usual, faster than I’d like. I mused that the longer we stayed in Thailand, the more likely we were not to get out of here unscathed …

The Nong Nooch Garden and Resort (you can spend the weekend here if you so choose) are definitely on the day-tripper agenda in a big way, as testified by the enormous number of enormous tour buses disgorging crowds of visitors in the three parking lots. The first display we passed was the elephant compound, where Ty spent a moment chatting with a young elephant whose foot was injured. In this compound, which consists of nothing but a cement slab, are quite a few of the beasts, all with chains around their legs, all of whom are required to carry around tourists all day, sometimes being hit on the head with a wooden stick carried by their custodian. Neither of us can stand to see elephants being used and abused in this way so we passed quickly by into the gardens proper.

Many different kinds of gardens have been created here, from a European Garden with many large topiary bushes and cheesy classicalesque statues,

to an Ant Garden, with colourful sculptures of ants very large and small,

to a Love Garden, and a Pottery Garden in which red clay pots have been used to create archways and sculptures, as well as hold plants.

Once through the Pottery Garden, we found the orchid display, a beautifully-scented and shaded area containing many examples of one of my favorite flowers.

Interspersed with the flowers and plants are kitchy sculptures of birds, frogs, giraffe, deer, elephants and turtles, the latter holding up huge boxes of bonsai trees. In the southern section of the park is also a large lake with gigantic fish to which visitors can feed tiny tuna.

After a snack at the Nong Nooch Seafood Restaurant, where we had a lost in translation moment about Ty’s pork buns, we headed back along a series of raised metal walkways from which we could see the design of the gardens very well.

Along these are large raised plant stands containing many varieties of bonsai.

From the walkway we had a great view of the layout of the French Garden, containing hedges of topiary, boxwood and purple bougainvillea. Here are also many white chedis, what looks like a large white funerary monument, and two Thai-temple-styled viewing platforms. Beyond these are three towering pagodas marking the edge of the Palm Garden.

The Gardens also contain a mini-zoo, situated in the middle of what looks like a kid’s playland, complete with noisy games that no doubt irritate the animals. Seeing a tiger lying there with a chain around its neck, waiting for visitors to have their pictures taken with it, was too much; both of us shunned any more of the zoo and aviary and quickly headed back out to the truck for our ride home. Overall, I thought the gardens were great, especially the French garden, with its variety of colours and shapes; however, the zoo, aviary, and elephant rides are, in my view, unnecessary and abusive, with small, dark, metal cages, and dank cement enclosures, that provide nothing in the way of a decent environment for the animals.

Here is the Nong Nooch Garden website.

Here is another review of the garden.

See more pics here.


Pattaya: Sin City

Ty had arranged for a driver to pick us up at the Lub-D Hostel and take us to Pattaya for the last two weeks of our South East Asia sojourn. At around noon a taxi pulled up out front and tried to scam us into thinking he was the driver for which we’d arranged. As we were talking to him, the actual driver arrived in a luxurious white SUV and whisked us away while the taxi driver pretended not to see. Although we know about the city’s bad rep, we selected Pattaya solely for convenience, being the nearest beach town to Bangkok, from which it’d be easy to get to the airport when it was time to go. We were hoping that we’d be able to find a decent part of town to relax in before heading back to North America.

After a reasonable two hour drive, we arrived at the KTK Royal Residence serviced apartments to find it in the middle of an active construction site. The noise from grinding saws, banging, shouting, and clanging, and the dust raised by men and machines working, made for a not very pretty picture. At the front desk, we asked to be placed in a quiet room away from the noise; the 4th floor room we got was the worst possible room we could have been given in terms of noise, right next to the construction site, across from a neighboring building from the front of which the noise reverberated as if an echo chamber. While the baffled bellhop waited with our bags, I asked again at the front desk for a room on the quieter side of the building, only to be informed that the hotel was full. The only other room available was the one right next door to ours, the second worst room in the hotel. Well, in the day that we spent there, we saw only three other people – it looks to me as if there’s no one staying on this side of the hotel and very few on the other side, which actually is not much quieter.

Deciding after about two seconds of listening to the noise that we weren’t going to stay, Ty and I headed out down the road to look for another room. After checking five or six hotels in the same area, and being told they were full (without any of the clerks actually checking their records), we grabbed a song thaew bus and headed north to Jomtien, a beach area I’d read was not as over-developed or sex-tourist-oriented as Pattaya. There we just happened to walk down a side street at the end of which we found the Inn Place, a brand new residence only open for a month. At the front desk the personnel were friendly and helpful, showing us a couple of rooms that were available for our stay, and we booked it then and there.

We assume that the reception at KTK thought that, because we’d booked through Agoda and paid for our stay in advance, we were trapped and couldn’t do anything about the situation. However, after a phone call to Agoda, we were able to get a refund for all but one night and off we headed to Jomtien.

One of the reasons we selected the KTK Royal Residence was because we wanted to cook some of our meals; the KTK was billed as a “serviced residence”, with a kitchenette. Interestingly, while the room does have a kitchen area, it has no pots or pans, no utensils other than 2 spoons and 2 forks, no dishwash cloths to clean anything. It has a fan to take away the smells of cooking but no way of cooking anything (no hotplate, no stove, no oven, only a microwave). It has kitchen cupboards, but the cupboards are bare.

The Pattaya/Jomtien area is huge – the beaches are long and quite narrow, carpeted the entire length with mushroom clouds of umbrellas cheek by jowl, beneath which the sand is dark with shade. Water sports boats, jet skis, and parasails are all available here; right now the international wind surfing championships are on at Jomtien, with very light high tech sails and small, light boards (not like the old days in 80’s Vancouver with boards so heavy it was almost impossible to drag them out of the water unless one was a gorilla).

Song thaews drive day and night along the beach roads honking for passengers; the official rate between Jomtien and Pattaya is 10 baht each – our first trip the driver asked for 100 each, which we paid not knowing. The accommodations in this area range from enormous skyscraper hotels to smaller serviced residences to a few bungalow operations to hotels for those in a hurry (!) renting rooms by the hour.

Once unpacked, we walked out down the main beach road, looking for a decent restaurant for lunch. Most of the places at our end of the beach have menus in Thai and Russian with English in small print as an afterthought. It’s easy to tell who the dominant tourist group is these days – mostly, we hear Russian.

We have found that those restaurants which cater mostly to foreigners have, unsurprisingly, the worst crap for food – cold, tasteless (because farangs don’t like spice), bland, and really unappetising. After a walk of about six blocks down the beach, past several large unfinished hotel complexes rusting in the sun, we found a small place which served excellent Thai food. [Note: now, 5 days later, the place is closed – damn]

Walking back along the beach, we saw a few very tiny clear round tentacle-less jellyfish and many small squid washed ashore. Since it was Sunday, lots of local families were at the beach picnicking and we enjoying seeing all the kids playing in the water. The many small soi (side streets) off the main drag have four and five storey walk-up guesthouses, many with small restaurants out front, and noodle, fruit, and soup wagons and tuk-tuks ply the alleys all day long. Massage parlours are plentiful, as are girlie bars with the usual occupants. The average age of the tourists here is probably in the early sixties, with large retired out-of-shape white men being the biggest, in every sense of the word, segment of the population here. From what I can tell, about 90% of the older occupants of Jomtien area are white male pensioners, about 98% of these with a young Thai woman in tow.

However, according to a couple of blogs I read the character of Pattaya is changing, with more couples and families coming than before – especially Russians.

See more pics here.