Piranha Attack

Well, not exactly piranhas, more Garra rufa or “doctor” fish. And not so much an attack, more a mouthing. Jasmine Valley Eco Resort has a fish pond and they encourage the guests to feed the fish with the dead skin on their feet. It’s better than buying fish food, and it goes with their recycling philosophy.

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I had to have a go. The fish took their time to get interested. Maybe my feet were not attractive enough. Perhaps the python fat cream had softened them up too much. But then I felt a tickle, and I involuntarily jerked my feet out of the water. Now I knew what it felt like- tiny, toothless jaws sucking at my calloused soles – I could tolerate it.

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Garra rufa fish are one thing, but prawns are something else.

After 15 minutes, the fish had had their easy pickings, and began to lose interest. My feet felt smooth and clean.

A few years ago, that august scientific journal, The Sun newspaper, ran a story about the health risks of fish pedicures. It said that there was a risk of contracting hepatitis C and HIV. Needless to say, this report was almost completely wrong; the risks are infinitesimally small. But there is a skin condition related to contact with fresh fishy water. “Fish tank Granuloma” is caused by Mycobacterium marinum. I have seen one case in UK, as it’s pretty rare.

My feet have yet to erupt with boils, so I think I’m safe.

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Sampeng Lane, Chinatown, Bangkok

Most people know this narrow lane as “walking street”. It runs through the heart of Chinatown for about a mile. You can buy anything here from tiny shops and stalls lining the lanes. No more than two metres wide in places, it gets clogged with people, tuktuks, bikes, motorcycles, trolleys filled with supplies and mobile food sellers.

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I enjoy taking quirky photographs, such as this one showing black toothbrushes on display. I can’t see these catching on – though there is a brand of toothpaste called “Darlie” (not Darkie) which features a black man wearing a top hat on the packaging.

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I am not sure there is much of a market for pink furry baseball caps decorated with fake silver balls and diamant√©. Maybe I’ll be proved wrong.

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Or sexy Japanese-style aprons. Give me Catch Kidston any day.

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There is a shop devoted to selling Chinese tassels, a stall with a Dulux type colour chart to help you chose material, bizarre children’s backpacks featuring monsters, flashing plastic tat and weird hats.

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Most of my posts contain photographs of food. How about sculpted pomegranates, and perfectly skinned oranges?

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All manner of tee shirts are for sale. Some have meaningless messages, but this one I thought was quite apt. I don’t know if the wearer knew what it meant, however.
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I like photographs of the sellers as well as their produce. Red hair and smiling face as she looks at a photo album; dodgy version of Nicholas Cage’s hairstyle; jester cap.

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The lane gets a bit wider at its eastern end. That means more room for sweating men to haul in trolleys stacked high with boxes. Once they get up momentum, they can’t stop quickly so they sometimes have a colleague clearing the path ahead.
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In these packed places, pickpockets thrive. There are loudspeakers every hundred metres blaring out a warning.

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So what did I buy? A Korean pair of nail clippers (the chain has already fallen off) and a bag of green, unripe mango slivers with a fishy, garlicky, spicy and sweet dipping sauce; these taste wonderful together. But I did consider purchasing some ancient Chinese enamelware, Bumper Harvest brand, and a set of concentric dishes, Rabbit Brand.

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Riding Pillion

Earlier this week, I hired a motorcycle taxi to take me from my guesthouse in Kampot (the lovely Les Manguiers) to the ruined French colonial resort of Bokor. He picked me up at 8am and we roared off down the dirt track into town. Well, pootled, rather than roared, really. It was a Honda 125cc scooter with a dodgy back brake. We refueled at the local corner shop. The fumes from the petrol must be bad because the attendant was wearing a surgical facemask.

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The driver was only about five foot tall, and must have weighed less than 55kg, so having a hulking westerner on the back must have altered the normal equilibrium of the bike, especially as there was a stiff breeze gusting intermittently. We passed the oddly named Sonja Killing Memorial Private Hospital. Don’t laugh; it’s the premier health facility in South East Cambodia.

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The Sonja Killing Memorial Private Hospital, Kampot.

Bokor Mountain was “discovered” by the French in 1917. It is over 1,000 metres above sea level, so it offered a respite from the humid heat of the plains during the hot season, reminiscent of Simla and Darjeeling in India. The French constructed a road through the jungle and rainforested slopes of the mountain. On the summit there was a casino/hotel, a town hall, a church, and several other buildings, all fallen into ruins. King Sihanouk built a villa, with accommodation for his retinue of guards and servants.

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Le Bokor Palace was built in 1925 on the edge of the cliff overlooking the Gulf of Thailand.

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It reminded me of the hotel in the film, “The Shining”. You can wander around inside, despite the perfunctory signs saying it may not be safe. The views from the rear are phenomenal. It is said that gamblers, who had lost all their money on the gambling tables, would throw themselves off the cliff. The hotel was in use until 1972.

The church is solidly built, covered with startling orange lichen. The altar remains, but the interior is covered in graffiti. Some of the stone window shutters still work, allowing the cool breeze to provide natural air conditioning.

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The Royal Villa is set apart from the main buildings, past the town hall. It’s tiled inner walls have been vandalised and the site is overgrown. If you listen closely, perhaps you can hear the ghostly tinkling of champagne glasses being used to toast His Majesty, of perhaps that was just the wind blowing through the empty window frames.

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This building was the town hall. It was constructed in local stone supplemented with reinforced concrete. It looks squat and ugly.

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The Damnak Sla Kmao, or Black Royal Villa, with the servants’ and guards’ quarters nearby.
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The interior is sadly wrecked.

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A few years ago, some developers decided that it was time to redevelop the site, to renovate Le Bokor Palace, with a new casino and hotel complex, “the first and only highland resort in the Mekong Sub-Region amid pristine jungle wilderness and pleasant cool weather on the top of the mountain.”

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Thansur Bokor Highland Resort looks soulless and empty. There are no windows at all on the back of the casino, to concentrate the minds of the gamblers on the serious business of chancing their luck. The children’s play palace looks like ToysRUs on steroids. A great warehouse shed the size of an aircraft hangar, stands by an old Buddhist temple, small and simple in its design. One wonders about planning regulations in Cambodia.

Wat Sampov Pram means Five Boats Temple, named after the wind-sculpted rocks nearby, which look like boats.

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Of course, if a business syndicate is going to built a massive gambling complex on top of a mountain, there needs to be an easy way to get there. The new road is reputedly the best road in the country. That didn’t help the 125ccs of the scooter, as it crawled up the hairpin bends on the immaculate tarmac.

My driver was as astonished as I was by the new development. He had to keep stopping to ask directions as the roads had changed since he had last been here. He wanted to give me the full tour of all the sights to justify his fee of $15.

We visited a waterfall which had almost dried up. This didn’t deter a host of Khmer tourists out for a picnic. It was a shame that they all brought their own food, leaving the aircraft hangar-cum-cafeteria empty.

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At 1pm, I had had enough and asked to return to Kampot. It was easier going down the mountain than coming up. To save fuel, he kept putting the bike into neutral and coasting down the less steep inclines.

Because I was clinging to the motorcycle, I could not take photographs to record what I was looking at. I had to use my eyes instead. What a strange experience for me, the compulsive photo snapper. I had to look, and smell, and hear what was going on around me, instead of relying on a digital image to tell me what had occurred. Refreshing, but I’m not over my addiction just yet.

As we approached Kampot, I gestured that we should stop for refreshments. He screeched to a halt at a road side cafe/shack selling rock cakes and sugar cane juice.

The girl who crushed the cane in a mangle looked like she had just gotten out of bed, still wearing her pyjamas (this reminded me of the Saffron Lane Council Estate in Leicester). As I took some photographs, a one handed man came out from the shadows in the back of the shop, to have his picture taken, too. I just wondered if he’d lost his hand in the mangle.
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The sugar cane juice, mixed with like and water from an earthenware jar, tasted wonderful. Even the rock cakes revived me. I retrieved my backpack from the guest house and for another $5, my driver took me to Kep, about half an hour away.

He wanted to show me his new motorbike, which had just 500km on the odometer. “We’ll get there in no time,” I thought, until he picked up his friend. Despite the heavier load of two Khmer men, a large Westerner and his luggage, we sped along the flat dirt road at a good pace, overtaking tuktuks, bicycles and, occasionally, a car. But every time a lorry drove past us, we were cloaked in red dust for ten seconds.

The driver’s navigational skills were still impaired and we got lost in Kep. I would have thought that the clue was in the name, Jasmine VALLEY eco resort, so searching as long the coast wasn’t helpful. We drove back into the centre of Kep but he refused to ask for directions. Not being a typical man, I did ask a tuktuk driver, but he wanted to charge me more than twice the going rate to the trip. And he refused to tell my driver how to get there. “You can’t get there on a motorbike,” he said. “The road’s bad and it’s too steep.”

I had a cunning plan; I would ask at the tourist centre. It was empty. A pastrami-coloured Irishman came out of the bureau and said that it was the fourth time he’d called by, but there never was anyone manning the desk. But he showed me a map he’d acquired. “Dis’ll tellya all the places youse’ll be ripped orf. But, they do it nicely, wid a smile,” he said.

I guided my driver up the valley track to the resort. We nearly came off the bike several times, doing a “wheelie” on a particularly steep bit. But we made it. I gave him a generous tip. I checked into my eco room, and as I stripped off for my cold eco shower, I glanced in the mirror. Seven hours of sun and wind while riding pillion had turned my face a strange colour – beetroot mahogany, I think Farrow & Ball might call it.

Tuol Sleng

This infamous prison of the Pol Pot era used to be a posh school in Phnom Penh before the Khmer Rouge rolled into town in 1975. It’s name translates as “strychnine hill”. Following the defeat of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, it was “liberated” by Vietnamese troops. They found evidence of at least 17,000 inmates who had been tortured into confessing their crimes of espionage. Some authorities suggest there were 20,000 but not all were documented in the early days.

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This is a torture cell in a former classroom, in A Block.

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This photograph was taken by Vietnamese was photographer, Ho Van Tay. It is displayed on the wall of the cell where it was taken.

The prison was one of 150 execution centres in the country. When the nearby cemetery filled up, prisoners were taken to the killing fields 15km outside the city to be killed by machete or being bludgeoned with a pick axe handle, and buried in mass graves.

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The prison has been renamed the genocide museum, with three of the blocks cleaned up and returned to a semblance of what they once were. The prison rules have been translated into English. One block has photographs of a selection of inmates, another shows the instruments of torture, and another has paintings made by one of the survivors. Another survivor, Chum Mey, was able to fix the typewriters used by interrogators to record the confessions. He says he sympathises with his guards and doesn’t blame them; if they refused to carry out orders, they would be arrested, tortured and killed.

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The prison commander, Comrade Duch, was tracked down and brought to UN trial in 2008. When he was given a light verdict in 2010, I saw Chum Mey complaining to the TV cameras that he should have been sentenced to life imprisonment, and this was what happened on appeal. Perhaps he changed his view of his former captors.

The museum seems cleaner and tidier than when I visited in 2010, sanitised for the tourists. In a way, this made me feel even more nauseated at what inhumanity occurred here. Manicured lawns and shady trees don’t disguise the horror of what went on here. The doctors who drained blood or surgically removed organs (without anaesthetic, of course) from inmates to see how long they could survive must have learned from Dr Mengele. Burning or skinning someone alive was reserved for the most “difficult inmates”. It doesn’t bear thinking about, but it needs to be remembered.

I spent an hour here, but others needed more time to absorb what went on at this awful place.

Cambodian Adventure

I’m taking a week off to visit Cambodia at Christmas. I had just five hours in Phnom Penh this morning before leaving for Kampot and Kep, so I hired a tuk tuk to go sightseeing. He said his name was Sun. “Like Mai Thai Sun, you know him?” No, I didn’t. “You must know him. Famous boxer.” Then the rial dropped. Mike Ty-Son.

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The Genocide Museum at S21 is even more harrowing than when I first visited in 2010. One can visit more floors, more torture chambers, see more photographs of the victims (the message gets diluted when you see some of the photographs are duplicates, but they must have made a strong impression for me to notice).

What’s the difference between these photos of two young boys who were tortured?
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One has a shirt, his number is pinned to it. The other doesn’t have a shirt, so his number is pinned to his skin.

Two Cold (sorry)

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Hot water bottles selling like hot cakes in Mawkerthai village. This morning I saw a boy cycling to school with both hands in his back pockets to keep them warm as well as showing off riding “no hands”. An old man, who resembled Ho Chi Minh before he was embalmed, was sitting in a chair soaking up the sunshine, doing calisthenics with his arms, but he had thick mittens on his hands.

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Woman with fur lined parka at Mae Kon Ken market this morning. I think her child looks angrier than the Angry Bird on his hoodie.

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The temperature control in our Toyota pickup truck doesn’t have “hot” on the disk. There is no red; it is all blue. The range is from chilly to freezing. The driver was so used to having the air con running that it was even more frosty inside. I had to open the windows to let a bit of warmth in. Being from the North East, I pride myself on the ability to cope with cold, so I was only wearing a thin cotton shirt. Here is one of the senior nurses wearing about five layers. A midwife asked for some gloves, woollen, not latex.

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This little girl was wearing her older sister’s jumper for warmth. Note the empty sleeves.

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Cool weather is great for vegetables. These three ladies were carrying over 20kg each on their heads.

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There was a temperature inversion by the mountains over the border in Myanmar, too.

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The guest house is getting ready for Christmas. The other day, the reception staff were putting up tinsel from the pelmet above the main window. They had to stand on stools to reach up. But when I walked past, they had to duck down to their ankles to keep their head below mine, as a measure of respect.

Cold

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The weather has turned deliciously cooler in north west Thailand. I opened the door to my tiny balcony this morning and started shivering. The sky was electric blue, but my neighbours had started a fire in their compound, presumably to provide heat rather than to burn rubbish. The acrid smoke made me shut the door, rather than the blast of cold air. The temperature only drops to 10C at night. In Sapa, Vietnam, they have had the heaviest snowfall in fifty years.

By 11am, the air temperature has risen to 25C and the health workers start taking off their parkas, or in Ee Moo’s case, her earmuffs too.

I worry about the small babies in our special care baby unit, especially when they need to be naked when having phototherapy. The light units have heaters of course. One of our premature babies needed two impromptu hot water bottles to keep warm. They are all swaddled and wrapped in woolly blankets.

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Market in Mawkerthai Village

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The clinic has been very quiet recently. With only three in patients and four babies in the special care baby unit, I took a stroll around the local market before ward round this morning. These barbecued chicken pieces look tasty but, at 10 pence a piece, they weren’t costly. However, they are just bits of chicken carcass, with very little meat on them.

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What about some intestines/tripe/chittlins? Tofu, too. There’s an impressive selection of intrathoracic organs, lungs, heart, trachea and bronchi. Some dried and fresh fish from the Andarman Sea off Moulemein in Myanmar. Great variety.

But markets are also about people; buyers and sellers, and their children. Here are a few photographs from this morning.

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What about vegetables? There were lots of leaves, watercress, morning glory, spinach, gourds, squash, pumpkins, as well as the staples – onions, garlic, potatoes, tomatoes, dried beans and pulses.

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There seems to be lots of cheap plastic toys, jewellery, torches and batteries, cell phones and dodgy DVDs. Not forgetting flowers and shoes.

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By 10am, the market was over, the sellers had packed up and moved on to the next village. I chewed on a chunk of orange-coloured chicken ribcage, trying to extract some meat, followed by a group of belligerent dogs, hopeful as ever, waiting for the scraps. Not one of my better food choices, I thought as I walked back to the clinic to start the morning’s work.

Designer Wat

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As I reached the highway, the rain became more persistent drizzle, soaking through my teeshirt and cycling shorts. The good news was that it was (mostly) all downhill back to home in Mae Sot. The bad news was the road surface was treacherous and the rear wheel’s brake was squealing like a banshee as I tried to control my speed.

The drivers of heavy goods vehicles had engaged low gear to control their speed, saving their brakes. I passed several of these behemoths speeding at over 30 mph, not entirely in control myself.

The sign for Wat Po Thi Khun up on the hillside by a teashop, grocery store and billiard room at Huai Hin Fon Hut. I braked sharply and turned off onto a track.

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I asked the lady in the grocery about directions to the wat. She waved towards the forest and swept her hand up in the air, saying, “Swoosh!” I took swoosh to indicate the track went up a steep hill. I ended up pushing the cycle up to a clearing in the woods with a white stone dharma chakra (Buddhist wheel of life) and a tree trunk carved into elephant trunks.

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After another 200 metres up the track, passing by a dozen sleeping dogs, I reached the temple. It looked splendid, white walls with red roof. The walls rose up from a curved plinth and the windows were narrower at the top than the bottom. Inside, there was a wooden pole with sockets into which you could fit a cleft stick containing folding money. A monk was studying beside a stash of donated goodies. It reminded me of Christmas presents, but not under a tree.

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By the altar, there was a framed photograph of HRH King Bhumipol, in monk’s robes, as a young man. To the right of the golden statue of the Buddha, hidden behind a screen, was the temple PA system. It was rather incongruous, I thought, to have an amplifier, a tangle of spaghetti wires, dials and switches in a quiet, serene, holy place.

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On the second floor, the decoration was more lavish and lurid, with gold and red painted designs on the walls and rafters. The floor was polished teak. A family of Thai tourists entered the temple, chattering away and taking photographs of each other. A man got down on all fours and crawled to the main image across a scarlet carpet, while the female members of the group kept their distance. I signed the visitors’ book. Only two other westerners had signed it in the past six months.

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As I went outside, it began to rain again, but it was warm and soft. A nun swept leaves from the courtyard and I wandered up to the ancillary buildings, further up the hill. Men were making furniture, sanding down teak, welding metal and trimming the plastic covered tin roof. I suppose some of the workers might have been monks in mufti, but it was more likely they were doing free DIY to gain merit. The man welding wore a black tee shirt with “Princess” written on the front, shorts, flip flops and Johnny Cash style sunglasses (to prevent arc eye, I suppose).

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It was getting late and the rain was more persistent. The screeching of my back brake alarmed the sleeping dogs as I sped down the hill. The journey back to Mae Sot was uneventful. I took off my wet clothes and flopped down onto my bed, exhausted.

Trilateral Highway

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The trilateral highway connects Manipur State in India with Mae Sot in Thailand running across Myanmar. I knew this before I went cycling on that route on Sunday. It just didn’t register in my consciousness that there would be massive trucks sharing the road with me as it was actually being constructed eastwards to Tak. This isn’t the Death Highway south from Mae Sot to Umphang; judging by the number of wrecked vehicles abandoned at the side of the road, it would probably rate as Desperately Unwell Highway.

The day started well. It was overcast, cool and there was a pleasant breeze from the west. This usually means rain coming from Myanmar, but the clouds were high and looked innocent. It was also hazy, as some farmers had started burning off the rice single in their fields. It wasn’t good weather for landscape photography, but I wanted to see a special temple called Wat Po Thi Khun. It was only 12 km from Mae Sot, situated on a hill in the forest. The temple’s architect was a farmer who went to Silpakorn University to study Archeology. It took him 17 years to create the temple and construction is still continuing.

Luckily for me, the old road had been left running parallel to the dual carriageway of the new Asian Highway. It was potholed and became a dirt track, but for the first five kilometres of my journey, I could cycle on it without fear of being mown down by an articulated lorry or what Australians would call a “road train”. The road began to climb, winding through dense forest, and my track joined it. My six geared lady’s bicycle, complete with basket hanging from the handlebars, wasn’t built for mountain biking. I had to get off and push it up the steepest parts of the highway, on the edge of the tarmac. After the road crested the hill, I could career down the other side at breakneck speed to get as much momentum as I could for the next climb.

Lots of passing drivers tooted their horns, more in greeting than warning. I got lots of waves from drivers and shouts from motorcyclists. After ten kilometres, there was a clearing in the forest and some ramshackle buildings, the equivalent of motorway services. This was a “Welcome Break” for me. I asked an immigration police officer about the temple. Encouragingly, he held up three fingers, but then made an undulating gesture to indicate that the journey was up and down. I drank one of my bottles of water and immediately broke out into a sweat; I had been too dehydrated to perspire.

The next section of road was a shocker. It was still under construction. Men were pouring concrete over reinforcing rods to make the barrier between the carriageways. There were new stretches of road being readied for tarmac, road rollers and bulldozers working, all the time vehicles were rushing past. The road makers greeted me with “Sawasdee Kurub”, putting their cementy palms together and smiling at the obviously crazed, red-faced “ferang” riding a lady’s bicycle up the central reservation.

The scenery changed from foothills to karst mountains. These limestone peaks have sheer vertical slopes cloaked in rainforest. I was getting disillusioned and exhausted. Perhaps the policeman meant three mountains away, not three kilometres as I had understood.

I must have gone six kilometres before I saw a roadside sign for a temple. Two problems – it was the wrong temple and the sign pointed to the opposite side of the motorway, now divided by a metre high concrete wall I couldn’t safely climb over with the bike. I rode on for another kilometre or so, until I could cross the road. The was a sign at the start of a track into the forest, written in Thai. It could have said, “Bus Stop” but I guessed it was Wat Than Inthamin.

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After I had cycled into the forest for a few hundred metres, I saw a man on a motorbike coming towards me. He didn’t look like a monk; he had a telescopic rifle strapped across his back. He waved vigorously and sprayed me with gravel as he passed.

The next person I met was the spitting image of the Fat Buddha. Bald as a coot, beaming smile from ear to ear, with a large paunch draped over the petrol tank of his motorbike.

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Here is a China figurine of Bodhia, who is not related to the Buddha at all. He’s a fat monk who likes children.

I finally reached a clearing in the forest, with a car park and a few buildings. I was not impressed, but a novice took me by the hand to temple built into a cave at the base of a karst mountain. It was screened off, to prevent birds or bats from getting in and depositing droppings on the images. The floor was tiled, there were some teak chairs, fluorescent lights and lots of incense burning.

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I tried to take a photograph using flash, but the incense smoke reflected the light, making the scene look very odd. The flowers were plastic, or made from silk, but I am no longer put off by artificial decor in Buddhist temples. It seems de rigeur to have flashing neon rays forming haloes around the most sacred images. I was completely alone in the gloomy tranquility and it felt comforting, somehow. What I couldn’t understand was why there were statues of monks there. Were they former abbots? Or were they depictions of a famous monk at various ages?

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Outside, the steps up to the temple had guardian snakes, notable for their crystal fangs and faceted disco balls on their tongues. There were multi headed serpents in the garden around the monks’ living quarters, and walking through the jungle I came across the body of a huge snake, looping out of the undergrowth.

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I stopped to chat with some monks doing their laundry and heard a strange pattering sound. Rain was falling on the leaves in the canopy, and it was a minute or so before the drops splattered on the earth. Wonderful, I thought, 17 miles of muddy highway hell away from home. But the rain stopped, so I remounted my bike and cycled down the hill back to the road. As I rode, gigantic leaves the size of serving platters drifted slowly down onto the track, like massive snowflakes. My feet are size 9s.

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To be continued: Designer Monastery