Monday, February 28, 2011

Feb 22nd, 2011 – The Sanctuary, Thailand: Blue Lagoon Time

Blue Lagoon Palms
I think I’m moving into the groove of time slip. Time slip is where recognized sequential, normal time slides into the slip stream of altered time, the time zone beneath clock time, the time zone of dreams, hallucinations, reveries and all spatially disjointed twin time, the transvestite half-cousin that breeds collared iguanas and tracks the course of freak galaxies across the skies. It’s happened to me before, in places as disparate as Mexico, Morocco and Greece. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not unwelcome. Jarring, yes, discordant, maybe, but never unwelcome. In fact, very very welcome. Shocking and slightly strange as time begins to have a vertical more than a horizontal dimension. Things begin to move sideways in time. It’s like the way time moves when you are having an orgasm as opposed to the way it moves when you’re stuck in traffic on the way to work. I would say it has something to do with perception. The perception of time does a somersault, and you are rocketed, or drawn slowly into another dimension where star trails occur over extended periods of time. Or no time at all. The thing is, you don’t really know which it is…
This lateral time I best describe as being Blue Lagoon time. Here in south Thailand, on the island of Koh Phangan, time has slipped into Blue Lagoon by Laurie Anderson.

Days, I dive by the wreck...
This track by Laurie Anderson best describes the state of mind I am currently in. You need to listen to it, hearing the lyrics is not enough. You have to hear them placed in the bizarre, evocative music that she sets them in, a scene so utterly disjointed from normal time as to open up a chasm, a rent in the very fabric of time, into which you slip, you slide, down a wet slippery rabbit hole, but slowly shifting, nothing harried or rushed about this at all. Like right now, for example. I am smelling frankincense. There is absolutely no reason why, with late sixties American swing music playing and cicadas trilling in the veil of darkness beyond the rattan and bamboo matting of the roof  lighting I should be smelling frankincense. And it’s probably not frankincense at all, but the way the barbeque is interpreting itself in air, cross-pollinating with the Thai jungle air and creating a fragrance reminiscent of European renaissance cathedrals. Something distinct and ethereal. Something that gets under the skin. And everything plummets down into an embracing otherness a step away from the normal plumage of sequential time. A different bird altogether. One like the one that swooped across the beach today like something out of a 60s dinosaur movie. Very large, black and white with a huge bill that had a great orange overhang and peacefully fed on chunks of banana proffered by the staff. This bird was one of those sign-posts directing you towards Blue Lagoon Time. In Laurie Anderson’s words, it goes like this:

I got your letter.
Thanks a lot.
I've been getting lots of sun.
And lots of rest.
It's really hot.
Days, I dive by the wreck.
Nights, I swim in the blue lagoon.
Always used to wonder who I'd bring to a desert island.
Days, I remember cities.
Nights, I dream about a perfect place.
Days, I dive by the wreck.
Nights, I swim in the blue lagoon.
Full fathom five thy father lies.
Of his bones are coral made.
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
Nothing of him that doth fade.
But that suffers a sea change.
Into something rich and strange.
And I alone am left to tell the tale.
Call me Ishmael.
I got your letter.
Thanks a lot.
I've been getting lots of sun.
And lots of rest.
It's really hot.
Always used to wonder who I'd bring to a desert island.
Days, I remember rooms.
Nights, I swim in the blue lagoon.
I saw a plane today.
Flying low over the island.
But my mind was somewhere else.
And if you ever get this letter.
Thinking of you.
Love and kisses.
Blue Pacific.
Signing off.

So now I go in search of lagoons. A lagoon is a salt water lake cut off from the sea by a slip of land, like the way a marriage can distinguish one member of the family from the poor cousin twice removed. But the lagoon is no poor cousin. It’s a geographical feature in its own right.

A brief update on the hornbill. Coming back from wi-fi-ing at the next beach with my camera out, really thinking that the inventors of Myst the PC game came here to Koh Phangan for their inspiration for the 2nd game, the one set on the island with the constant sound of the waves in the background informing the high-toned ambiance.
Myst-style walkways linking beaches of Had Tien with Had Yuan
Seeing  the rickety bridge-walks over the rocks, and the nature of the rock formations themselves, huge and rounded like multiple stone buddah heads erupting out of the jungle green – and also the occasional pyramid shaped domes on structures, it really had me in mind of that game, and it induces in me a somewhat similar feeling: that this is a parallel world, running alongside the other one with timetables and cars and business meetings. It is temporally challenged, spaces opening out of ocean, shooting up between palm trees, Blue-Lagoon time where the mind is ‘somewhere else’. Like the gears of a car it becomes disengaged, rolling along in neutral to its own tune.

Bob Marley and the Hornbill
There I was walking that sea path when a guy came out from one of the little cafes built into the rockface, noticing my camera he said, ‘You wanna take a picture of the bird?’ He led me inside where the giant black hornbill was busy on the window ledge that stretched the length of the café overlooking the ocean eating the heads off the potted flowers. The light wasn’t quite right with the dimness of the café too contrasty to the external bright sunshine for any good photo, but the clever bird obligingly trundled down the other end, where this other Bob Marley type guy suddenly materialized and sat down beside the hornbill and started up a bit of a conversation with it. Photographic paradise…

Friday, February 25, 2011

Problems in Paradise: only one and it's wifi...

For the past five days (feels like weeks!) I've been on Koh Phangan island in the Bay in the Bay of Siam, Thailand. In spite of having the best intentions and writing everyday since I left Bangkok I haven't been able to publish anything as the wifi connection at The Sanctuary has been really erratic and I think my laptop is acting up as well, the universe in a technological conspiracy to prevent me distracting myself from absolute relaxation, which I've been over-indulging in with yoga, thai massage, swimming in the ocean, hanging out in a hammock and generally loafing around. Will be posting my four or five back dated accounts all at once, hopefully later today or tomorrow morning and putting in the dates I recorded them. Thanks for watching, back soon...

Saturday, February 19, 2011

All about food: I finally learn to cook Pad Thai & a night in Chinatown, Bangkok

Pad Thai I cooked at Baipai Thai Cookery School, Bangkok
Yesterday started being whisked by minibus to the outskirts of Bangkok to a Thai Cookery School called Baipai.  I thought, when in Rome, and I'd always wanted to know how to cook a proper Pad Thai, one of my favourite dishes, not as easy as you'd imagine considering it's basically a stir fried noodle dish. I've had so many versions of this dish in many Thai restaurants all over the place and have tried to cook it myself plenty of times, restaurants nearly always and my efforts certainly always, disappointing. I wanted to make it the way they cook it in Thailand, it's name, after all, meaning, Noodles cooked in the Thai style. Simple enough it would seem.

The thing is, everything hinges around the sauce, getting it right makes the difference between a real Pad Thai and a basic noodle dish. And then of course getting all the ingredients right. Then it actually is simple enough. Baipai has really got it down running it's Thai cookery classes. Everything runs like a well-oiled machine in getting the logistics of having eight people cooking with equipment they have never used before and they manage really well to make it a great experience. Set in beautiful gardens, the Japanese style kitchens were amazing. They use local produce and grow all their own herbs. Including holy basil, something not readily available in Ireland. Apparently the Buddhist monks used to boil this herb, the intense aroma from which was thought to enhance meditation.

Ruby Fruit (chestnuts dyed in grenadine) in sweet coconut milk

We were told this on a tour of the gardens where I met the group who were from all over the place, Mexico, Indonesia, Japan and Germany. The German guy was a riot. Well, more like a hit on the head with a police truncheon. When we got into the class and the very clear and skilled presenter and chef would explain in detail an ingredient, holding up pictures, passing around samples this guy would invariable ask what the item was, completely mystified. The presenter would patiently repeat the description with some well hidden concern that this guy was having a laugh. Just one of those people who really never listen, I guess. We learned to cook four Thai dishes: Thai Fish Cakes, Chicken and Galangal in Coconut Milk Soup, Pad Thai and Water Chestnuts in Coconut milk. Because I'm so thrilled to now know how to cook one of my favourite dishes, I will publish the recipe here on the blog so you can all try it at home. It's really fabulous!

The chef at Baipai using a traditional coconut shaver

The chef cutting up some galangal, and Dew, the presenter

Woman in Chinatown food market
Stink fruit on  sale in Chinatown, Bangkok

Do we have enough now, mother? Do we?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Of orange robes and murderous tuc-tuc drivers

Buddha figure in Wat Saket temple, Bangkok

Talk about overwhelm! From a cold rainy grey Dublin to a hot steamy and very bright Bangkok, I’m in a state of extreme contrast shock. After long flights where my window kept getting hotter as we flew south and east down to Abu Dhabi and then straight out over the Arabian sea heading over the Indian sub-continent, then over Myanmar and curving down over northern Thailand and into Bangkok, which was surrounded by what looked like elongated vivid green paddi fields interspersed with rectangular lakes of water flamed amber by the setting sun. A shroud of heavy mist mixed with pollution hung over the city as the plane came low to land.

Flying over western India

Outside, the evening was hot and heavy, but my taxi was cold and very, very fast. I kept noticing speed signs that read ‘60’, which my driver was very successfully ignoring, driving in the fast lane over a hundred and up the arses of the cars in front. It wasn’t exactly as if I was in a hurry. Around the speeding car grew this enormous sparkling city that was sitting down in the last lick of light from the setting sun, behind which the night followed in shades of deepest blue.
The night was becoming panoramic.

A million people were out on the Silom Road, where the taxi moved with barely lessened speed than on the motorway, narrowly avoiding carnage. I was too tired to be concerned. He obviously knew what he was doing, right? We pulled up after an hour’s handle-gripping exhalations in front of the Bossotel. And they were lovely, received with a big smile and a cocktail glass of cold mango juice. A quick shower later and I was sampling my first pad thai, right across the road in a lovely hotel and sipping a singha beer.
Today, my first official day in Bangkok I decided to jump in the deep end and head for the big tourist venues of the Grand Palace complex. Just down the road was the pier on the great Chao Phraya river that curves like a giant snake through the heart of Bangkok where I jumped on a water taxi packed with locals and tourists alike that, after much piercing whistles from the guy in charge of tying up the boat and releasing it when it came into the many stations along the route, pushed out into this huge wide river criss-crossed with myriad boats plying their unregulated (speed-wise) way through water that was full of detritus sloughed off by the beast of the city, vegetables, plant material, plastic containers of many colours. At first you don’t notice, you’re too concerned with whether you will be able to handle the rocking, and the foam slip-stream from the boats obscures it to a degree, but there’s no getting away from the fact that the river is very polluted.

The Chao Phraya river boats, Bangkok
Stop 8 , second after the Memorial Bridge is Tha Thien, exit for Wat Phra Kaeo, the Grand Palace and right outside I met the person who turned out to be my host for the next four hours, a tuc-tuc driver who told me his first lie of the day, that the Grande Palace was not open until 12.30, but in the meantime he could take me to a few places. I readily agreed, quite looking forward to my first trip on one of these converted motorbikes that are everywhere in Bangkok. Four hours later I had still not seen the Grand Palace, but I had got a chance to visit two jewelry bazaars, two tailors and a tourist agency. In between fulfilling his quota with his ‘sponsors’, my tuc-tuc driver, whose name I never got, did manage to take me to two amazing places, the first of which was Wat Saket ‘The Golden Mount’. An artificial hill constructed under King Rama III (1824-51) the Golden Mount was a burial site during the plague under his reign, and thirty thousand people were cremated here. 

Golden Buddha in Wat Saket, Temple of the Golden Mount, Bangkok
Flags blowing on the Golden Mount, overlooking Bangkok

318 winding steps later, the view of Bangkok is fantastic, multi-coloured flags flapping madly in a mercifully cooling wind. It seems to be a temple that attracts many Buddhists to kneel before the golden Buddah in the central dome whose gold leaf is fluttering in the wind making it look animated as it sits beautifully amid the flowers and votive offerings, a sea of candles illuminating the gold. I watched as two older monks in burnt orange robes and bare feet took turns to have their pictures taken in front of a beautiful frontispiece of golden buddah statues and regalia, delicately judging the results in the screens of their digital cameras.
Two monks at Wat Saket Temple checking out their digital images

Sweet old faces to sit there in the soft ambiance of that high windy place with the prayer bells resounding in the background and the tourists passing in front of them making ( I thought, surely!) all kinds of faux pas in front of the tapestry of buddah statues. But no, how refreshing – it seemed no rules were being advertised or implemented by the resident monk who sat behind a sun-drenched counter with the most serene expression on his face that forced me to sit down myself, put the camera away and just take in the beautiful incense-drenched bell-resounding ambiance of that lofty place. It’s worth the grueling climb in the 90 degree heat.
Bucket of ranunculas to offer to the Buddha

Monks in Wat Saket, The Golden Mount, Bangkok

At the bottom once again my driver directed me to a school that seemed to be having their lessons mostly outside on this day. I was directed around to where a throng of young girls from different schools were taking religious instruction, singing and chanting, seated cross-legged outside a beautiful white temple.

Inside the temple of the Golden Buddha in Wat Saket

A man approached me, introducing himself as the head teacher of the school, saying I was lucky because today was a very special day, the first of a three-day holiday in Thailand commemorating the Buddah’s birthday. After telling me about his visits to Galway to visit his sister who is married to an Irish man he told me to go into the temple, and as I approached groups of girls moving about from the platform in front of the temple to the seating below, smiled smiled smiled at me, hello – where you from? Beautiful, genuine smiles. Open faces. Open hearts.

The beautiful giant golden statue of the buddha, Wat Saket

Inside a hundred foot golden Buddha was sheltering from the intense midday heat set against the back wall of a temple strewn with the kneeling, incense-bearing, icon-rattling girls, intent on their prayers and their incense lighting. Two giant wheels of Thai notes once again showing how in the Thai mind no conflict exists between the religious and the secular. Good thing Jesus wasn’t about…

Room behind the temple from where emanated an amazing waft of young chanting voices
I was drawn to a back room to the right of the giant smiling buddha, voices of chanting girls and I couldn't help but be transported to the set of The King and I, as that sweet chanting had that quality of purity and sincerity that was captured in that film from the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, who became governess to the children of King Mongkut of Siam in the early 1860s and I half expected the March of the Siamese children to begin as I went through those doors. The oddest thing about that film is that the young princes and princesses were cast from a wide range of racial backgrounds, many Italian and Puerto Rican, but none were Thai!

Tiger boy, Wat Saket, Bangkok

Outside the school once more a throng of white clad girls and a boy strangely painted like a tiger bowed in front of a group of monks, one of which was in a wheel-chair. The immobile one turned out to be ‘King of the Monks’ (as he was introduced by my friendly tuc-tuc driver). One of his attendants held a sun-shielding umbrella over his great impassive head, where he sat, it must be said, fairly unresponsively as the children in front of him bowed and smiled and joined their hands symbolizing the ‘not two but one’, and greeting the god in the other.

The head buddhist monk entertains a group of children at Wat Saket
Children bow to head monk, Wat Saket, Bangkok
After another few jaunts to various franchises (did you know that today would be the perfect day to buy a Thai sapphire, much good luck!) the mad tuc-tuc driver with whom I was becoming increasingly irritated as he wouldn’t seem to listen when I insisted I didn’t want to go to any more shops. He kept saying, ‘just one more, I get petrol, they my sponsors’ and would take off in a direction I couldn’t see because of the strange low configuration in the back seat of the tuc-tuc. I didn’t see much of Bangkok driving around that way but I saw a lot of his fat hairy neck and he goaded that ill-used machine into some semblance of efficiency under the glaring Thai noon-time sun. 
The Marble temple, Wat Benchamabophit
The Marble temple, Wat Benchamabophit
The mythical solar lion stands guard at the Marble temple, Wat Benchamabophit
Buildings on the grounds of The Marble temple, Wat Benchamabophit

One of the other places I was allowed to go before I insisted on being let out while I still had my life (I don’t know how many near misses there were on that deadly journey, but I hear that’s totally normal for this mode of transport in Bangkok) was the Marble temple, Wat Benchamabophit. 

Golden Buddha, The Marble temple, Wat Benchamabophit 

And exactly as the name suggests its gleaming walls and floor were carved from white Carrarra marble, a cluster of buildings with no central wihaan or chedi. An active temple, people were worshiping in front of another giant golden buddha.

People worshipping, The Marble temple, Wat Benchamabophit, Bangkok
Future photographer takes a picture of her family in front of the shrine

In the main bot is a cloister lines with the seated and standing figures of Buddha in various styles representing the many lands where Buddhism reigns.

The Inner Courtyard, The Marble temple, Wat Benchamabophit, Bangkok

I was surprised at how few actual tourists were around and I loved the way the monks that were about seemed at peace with the invasion of the secular world. There were a lot of local Thais, bringing offerings of incense and flowers to one of the many shrines, what seems like an everyday activity for people. 

Rows of Buddha statues around the inner courtyard, The Marble temple, Wat Benchamabophit 

I was again impressed with the casual openness of the monks, how the doors to their temples are open to tourists and worshippers alike, cameras are waved in with a smile and a bow. I can't help drawing negative comparisions to Catholicism which I was born into, with all it's rules and hierarchy. 

Fat smiling Buddha in the grounds of The Marble temple, Wat Benchamabophit 
Roof detail, The Marble temple, Wat Benchamabophit

All you see from a tuc-tuc travelling at the speed of sound through Bangkok

Girl in tuc-tuc, Bangkok

Friday, February 11, 2011

3 days and counting...

Photographs from my fridge of places I've been, dream about, want to go to...I believe that mixing the seen with the not-yet-seen makes the not-yet-seen infinitely easier to actually see...

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.
Mark Twain

Where are you dreaming of?

I'm about to do all of this and more. Throwing off bowlines. Throwing off all lines, all ties, all holds that bind and brace. About to sail away into the vast blue yonder. I feel like I'm molting. Not molting, exactly, maybe I need to coin a new word. Smolting, that's it.  A combination of melting, molting and smelting. I am smolting like a caterpillar on it's way to becoming something totally different. They call that process 'metamorphosis' from the Greek, 'meta' meaning above or beyond, changed or altered and 'Morpheus' the Greek God of dreams, son of sleep. I am about to catch all trade winds, and winds completely unassociated with trade. Leisure winds, lagoon winds, languishing and lewd winds. Prevailing winds, all easterlies and westerlies and, especially, southerlies. Winds that cajole and caress. Winds that whisper sweet nothings. I will be at the mercy of winds I have never felt caress my skin. I will miss the Monsoon, flying into Asia in high summer, rains not forecast for many months to come. And the safe harbor I am leaving has indeed been a haven, where the process of smolting has been happening for a good while now, but the safe haven now comes to look like a prison, it's safety having grown bars. 

I am so scared of this voyage ahead. And so completely exhilarated! This is as it should be because I believe the process of breaking free is painful, and all the lonely ghosts that want your companionship in misery exert, at this time, their strongest hold. So you pull away in bits, in fits and starts, you pull away hearing in the background the soft tearing of flesh as some deep inner membrane begins to come away from that to which it was anchored. You pull away with the little fears of childhood that have now, over the course of a life, become substantial, ingrained, second, if not first, nature. You pull away with them yanking on you with all their might, the fears that invade your nights and open your dreams to their subtle, but strident, calls. They pull at you until you think you are going to give in, cave in, sink into the quagmire from which you will never be able to extricate yourself over the span of one lifetime. Till you think you have made some horrendous mistake that is going to upset the ecliptic of the equinoxes or the earths orbit around the sun. You hear them say (and now you mimic them) I am too old, sick, poor, feeble (fill in your own adjective)... they want you to feel small, insignificant, weak. They want you to walk away. To say, that's what other people do, travel, see the world, go out on a limb, on an impulse, on the wing of a bird flying in search of sustainance. To say, I wish I could do that! yet secretly covet your armchair in front of the tv where no winds will blow, trade or otherwise, to disturb your slumber. I heard them, alright, I almost sucumbed to them, almost said 'later'... but something else seems to have grabbed my attention. Something to do with what's beyond the voices, something I can barely hold within myself, it is so lively and reckless (from the German 'ruckloss' meaning wicked). And it has proved stronger than all the other voices. 

And, for fear that in twenty years from now, in five, in two, I will feel disappointed with myself for not having done whatever it is your heart is calling for you to do, for me to do, I'll take Mark Twain's advise and head out into the trade winds hoping that they will catch my sail and take me to where I could never imagine (but always have been imagining) I will go.

Come along on the journey! I will write daily and post photos of the places I will visit. Leave the rain and travel to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam and across to America via the back entrance. Who knows, it may inspire your own journey to those destinations you've always secretly (or blatantly) imagined...