Beating the Heat in Bangkok

Thailand’s present prime minister, an ex- military general who took on the task of governing this complex country just over six months ago, has been quoted as saying he would like to see Bangkok become the “Dubai of the East”. Judging by the number of sky scrapers and shopping centers cropping up all over the city I am guessing he was serious about this ‘off the cuff’ remark. Then again perhaps it’s a fluke or a case of be careful what you wish for as it may come true. Whatever the reason, Bangkok is starting to look like a world class city.

Thailand is not an ideal place to be at the end of March or the month of April. Being so close to the equator in the midst of summer means temperatures in the high 30’s with extremely high humidity. I definitely wasn’t looking forward to returning after having at least a few ocean breezes and the beach in Koh Lanta. However, to my surprise, I was more comfortable here than I was on the island.

I know it doesn’t make sense so I feel I must come up with an explanation for such a ridiculous turn of events. Or perhaps you might have already guessed why this is so. Bangkok like all cosmopolitan cities in Asia is concerned about its popularity as a leading tourist destination so it’s crucial for them to keep the tourists coming this time of the year in spite of the heat. Their solution is to air condition the whole city especially the places where tourists are apt to go. We can leave the comfort of our air-conditioned hotel rooms for the air-conditioned sky train and subway which can take us quickly and cheaply to the numerous air-conditioned shopping malls conveniently located at strategic stops. Once you decide which of the many shopping centres you want to go to, you can easily spend the whole day there eating, doing your blog as I am doing in one of the many cafes, take in a movie, be lucky enough to come across some form of entertainment, skate, bowl or shop! Isn’t that what they are for, or should I say WERE for? Seems like most people are there for the same reason as me and that is to keep cool and at the same time enjoy the atmosphere, people watch, catch up on our E-mails, and eat. Shopping is secondary activity except for well-heeled Thai but certainly not for tourists like me on a budget.

I am staying once again at my old haunt – the Atlanta Hotel on Sukhumvit Road, the longest street in the city. I am smack dab in the midst of the exclusive, high-end shopping malls, such as the trio of Siams which draw hoards of people. There is Siam Paragon for serious shoppers and foodies. Here you can take in a movie or see a concert in the theatre. Andre Bocelli, that wonderful Italian opera singer is performing here this week. Siam Centre is the latest addition to this huge complex catering to the youmger set with trendy merchandise, cake/coffee shops galore, and packed with students. The third member of this group is Siam Discovery where Madame Tusseau’s wax museum is housed. Oh yes, I forgot to mention the Aquarium located in the Paragon which is another huge draw.

Then there is Central World, the largest shopping mall in SE Asia. If you follow the rather bizarre politics in Thailand, you may remember that this was the mall which was torched by the Red Shirts a few years ago. It’s been rebuilt and is now bigger and better than it ever was. It is not so upscale so draws more middle class shoppers looking for good buys. This one has a skating rink which the Thai kids really love. Just a few blocks from Central are a couple of smaller centers such as the very upscale Gaysom centre always beautifully decorated, never very busy but always fun to look at. I have yet to put my foot in any of them. This year I discovered yet another mall called Central Embassy just a short walk from my hotel. This one out classes all the others in its modern design and types of stores. It has a store that only sells champagne. It has little tables where you can sit and sip it by the glass. Business was rather slow when I walked by so I guess this hasn’t caught on yet.

My most exciting discovery was another huge centre which apparently has been around for awhile but is now becoming a favourite with Thai and tourists alike. Terminal 21 is located at the Asok sky train stop. As shoppers enter, they are immediately transported into an international airport with gates (in this case escalators) taking visitors to some of the world’s most exciting cities. I visited them all the day I spent there – Rome, Istanbul, Paris, London, and San Francisco. This was without a doubt one of the most creative malls I have ever seen. Each level represents one of the cities with tiny streets radiating outwards from a central court. My favourite was London. There was the British bobby, Carnaby Street, the red, double decker bus, and the telephone booths. The only piece missing was British food. This was true of all the cities on all the levels. Here the creativity was lost as all the food options were similar to what you would find in any Bangkok mall. How great if the mall planners had some how got restaurants to offer foods representative of the city they were in.

Spending three days checking out Bangkok’s exclusive shopping malls is not my preferred way of visiting this city but for this time of year it was the answer for me. I would have liked to have ventured down to the Chao Pra River and stayed there as I did in December. The Uma Residence was out of the question this time as they no longer were offering their promotion special putting it beyond my budget. I have stayed at the Atlanta every year so it has become almost a second home. It’s still within my budget, comfortable, and does have a swimming pool which also helped  to keep me cool. However, the real plus was that it put me so close to the sky train and all the shopping centres which really helped me cope with the heat.

I took too many pictures of my days at these malls which I still can’t post with this article. However, I will be posting some on Facebook for anyone who uses it. Betty Wright on Facebook should do it.


My Typical Day on Koh Lanta

Do you find it difficult to change your  preferred way of doing things? I think many of us can safely say that we do so why would we want to? “If it ain’t broke then why fix it?” as the saying goes. My travels are helping me to break out of this mold and become more creative on how to deal with the days I am blessed with no matter where I happen to be. Being overly endowed with resilience has not been one of my strong points.

I booked myself in for eight nights at Lanta DD House on Koh Lanta. Koh Lanta is one of the chain of islands in the Andaman Sea in the southwestern part of Thailand. When I arrived I immediately realized that it was very hot here as it is all over SE Asia right now which meant curtailing the amount of sight seeing I could do or even the amount of lying on the beach I could safely do without burning myself to a crisp. Now perhaps I could spend more time working on my blog and reading all the books I have downloaded on my E-reader. The first option posed some problems since I no longer have access to my computer. I have only my small tablet which is designed to drive impatient people like me slightly crazy. The second option was fine except that it’s difficult to read in bright sunlight so am compelled to read inside.

After four days here in my comfortable little bungalow, I have had to limit my activities and adjust to a much slower pace than what I am accustomed to. In addition, I have had to work on a suitable schedule that could give more focus to my remaining days so I can feel productive. This could mean you will see a flurry of posts but with no pictures. Sorry, but Word Press won’t allow me to download pictures from my tablet unless I give them $99.

Moving around at a slower pace means less walking and staying more indoors. On my second day here, I was so thrilled to be near the sea again that I spent most of my day lapping it all up on the beautiful beach just a ten minute walk from my bungalow. In spite of the copious amount of suntan oil and being conscious of not staying too long in the sun, I still managed to resemble a lobster the next day! This event forced me to make some necessary changes to my usual way of spending my days at a beach.

My new schedule went into effect a few days ago and so far seems to be the answer to coping with my time on Koh Lanta. I wake up early about 6:30 a.m. and head down to the beach for a walk and a swim. I am by no means alone as it seems like everyone else has the same idea. This is followed by a light breakfast in my room of fruit and yogurt. I have a fridge so keeping some breakfast foods and snacks on hand is helping to keep my food costs down. This may sound surprising because I have always found it less expensive to eat out in Thailand, but not here on the island. The prices of meals are double what they are anywhere else and I am only getting 25 baht to the dollar when I used to get 30. Around 10 o’clock, I go for a good coffee and pastry or baguette at one of the nearby bakeries. This, along with some of my snacks, will last until dinner time which can be any time after sundown. From about 11:30 onwards to about 4 or 5 p.m., I stay inside where I have comfortable A/C to do my blogging, E-mailing, or reading.

Then it’s to the beach again for another walk and to witness the sunset which at this time of year is nothing spectacular because it’s hazy; however, is fun to watch as it quickly sinks below the horizon. I was fortunate to meet two wonderful ladies, one from Sweden and the other from Australia, on the ferry on my way over here. On Sunday, I walked from my beach, Klong Dao, to the next beach about three kilometers south, commonly known as Long Beach and considered to be one of the ten best in Asia I have heard. Who should I run into but Berta, the Swedish lady! Since we are all of the same age and share a passion for travel, we have been enjoying each others’ company over dinner each night which has been lovely for me since one of the downsides of travelling solo is eating dinner alone. It’s sometimes nice to have good conversation in your own language at the end of the day.

I am now into my fifth day with two more to go before I catch the ferry over to Krabi and then fly back to Bangkok via Air Asia. In spite of the heat forcing me to take more refuge in my room than I would have liked, I am quite satisfied with my island holiday. Koh Lanta is everything the brochures say it is. It has a good range of accommodations from 5-star resorts to budget-priced bungalows for the backpackers. Tourists have been coming here for years yet it hasn’t gotten over developed like so many other islands in Thailand. It has three long, sandy beaches for walking, swimming, and snorkeling all on the western side, and a few more further south which are rockier and, therefore, draw fewer tourists. They are perfect for those who want more piece and quiet. The thing about Koh Lanta is, it still isn’t over developed and has not become a party island which makes it suitable for families. It isn’t a Koh Phi Phi or Samui but it has its own charm with activities to suit everyone: diving, snorkelling, elephant trekking since much of the island is covered with forest, mangrove exploring, and a convenient jumping off point for some island hopping. If that isn’t enough to keep one busy then the largest town where all the ferries arrive and depart from, Ban Saladan, looks like a great place to shop as well as to stay and eat. All of this comes at a noticeable cost as I have already pointed out. If coming from the north i.e. Chiang Mai for example, your budget can take a big blow which probably explains why there aren’t so many backpackers. Instead the island draws mostly European families (especially Swedes) and older folks like me.

This has been my first island experience in Thailand in several years. In the past, a bamboo hut, fan, and sometimes a Thai toilet were the order of the day. This rustic experience is almost becoming a thing of the past. Now the bungalows are built of concrete, are air-conditioned, have high definition TV, WiFi, fridge and all the other amenities of a 3 or 4 star hotel. This easily explains why accommodations are more than double in price. Food has to be more expensive since nothing seems to be grown here other than some fruit and spices. Fishing is carried on extensively around the island so although on all the menus, it’s more than $10 a plate in most restaurants. Whether by accident or design, the realty is that so long as the island is considered as one of the more expensive ones, it will have a better chance at not becoming ruined by over development and too many tourists. To me this is a good thing.

Battambang – the ”Heart and Soul” of Cambodia

Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city, is a relative newcomer to the tourist scene in Cambodia primarily due to the Phare Ponleu Selpak’s Circus School. I first heard of Battambang and the sensational productions of this group from my journalist friend in Phnom Penh who reports on Cambodia’s fledgling but flourishing arts and culture scene for the Cambodian Daily newspaper.

Before the Khymer Rouge wrecked its havoc on this beautiful country and its people, Battambang was not only considered Cambodia’s ‘rice bowl’ but also the ‘heart and soul’ of its culture. I decided that this year I had to go up to the northwestern part of the country to check it out for myself.

What struck me was the friendly spirit of the people and the peace that prevailed over this city of 240,000 inhabitants. Moreover, it was easy to navigate. The Sangkae River runs through the town splitting it into two parts resulting in numerous bridges, and streets laid out in a grid system, thanks again to the legacy of the French. I was able to walk everywhere and never get lost. The tuk-tuk drivers weren’t too happy about this but they never gave up on me and always accepted my rejection of their offers with good grace and humour.

Peaceful river scene.

Peaceful river scene.

Battambang or “bong” witch is the way it’s pronounced but not spelled, like all Cambodian cities, has its fair share of temples and ancient ruins from its Khymer past. Most of them are in the outlying area and easily accessible by tuk-tuk or moto-bike. Not excited about combing temples and ruins in the heat and having had enough exposure to the Cambodian past which can be so gruesome, I opted to stay within the city limits and get a feel for the place by walking and meeting the people. I stayed for four days and would have visited at least one if not two of the more famous sites such as, Ek Phnom an ancient temple that pre-dates Angkor Wat, or Wat Samrong Knong and the “Well of Shadows” which is the oldest pagoda in the area and was a prison during Pol Pot’s terror. However, I was distracted by  my computer and G-mail which decided to test my patience and mental stability by presenting me with one problem after another. I quickly realized how dependent I’ve become on my technical gadgetry so had no other choice than to seek help and not worry about seeing or doing all those touristy things I could have done.

Inside the grounds of one of Battambang's temples.

Inside the grounds of one of Battambang’s temples.

After spending countless hours of what I can only describe as a feeling of floundering around in the darkness of cyber space, I eventually found  and bravely sought help from eager to please Cambodians who all seemed to have a different solution to my problems. Unfortunately, their language skills didn’t come near their eagerness to help which was a major drawback to a technical illiterate like me. Eventually after I thought some of my problems had been solved, I managed to attend a performance put on by the students of the now famous Phare Selpak’s Circus School.

The Phare school is a huge success story for this area and was the beginning of Battambang’s quest to regain its past glory of being the spiritual, intellectual, and cultural centre of Cambodia. It all started after the fall of the Khymer Rouge in the late ’70’s in the midst of the largest refugee camp of displaced Cambodians located on the Thai-Cambodian border. Nine of Veronica Decrops’ students, who were children at the time she was providing drawing workshops for them, went on to become the founders of Phare which means “the brightness of the arts”. Decrops understood the need for these disadvantaged children to overcome their horrors of the war by developing their artistic talents and instilled in them the belief that the arts are a powerful tool for human development and social change. To this day, this remains the focus of the organization supporting the school where up to 1400 students are presently enrolled. All come from disadvantaged families where through a co-operative effort by teachers, parents, and the students the environment is not only creative but nurturing and supportive.

The ongoing work of Decrops’ vision was very evident in the premier of Chills the performance I attended. The young performers connected instantly with the audience so much that there were times I was sitting on the edge of my seat as yet another more daring twist, flip or balancing act was executed on the small stage in front of us.  These guys and gals were true performers – professional all the way, yet engaging and sincere in spite of the heat which made their bodies so wet that I was certain one of them would slip and have a serious fall. At the end of their performance, they were all there to let us come up on the stage to congratulate them or take a picture. In the spring, they will travel to France and from there take their show on the road to other parts of Europe. Graduates of this school have now set up a professional group in Siem Reap with nightly performances and when not high season there, they tour the world making a name for themselves as the Phare Circus. Circle de Soliel had better keep an eye on this group!  You can find out more about the school and the group at


A hard act to follow.

A hard act to follow.

The troupe after their very energetic performance.

The troupe after their very energetic performance.

To escape from my hotel room and my computer problems, I crossed the river to stroll around the down town of Battambang. On my walks I met some incredibly interesting people. One of the first places I walked into was Bric-a Brac where almost immediately I was greeted by one of the most energetic and engaging Cambodian girls I have yet to meet on my travels here. Lisa was her name and because her English was very good, we were able to talk about many things especially the changing role for women. She left her rural family home to come to Battambang on her own to learn English and to attend university to study International Law. When not studying she is working at Bric-a-Brac making crafts and serving customers. By nature Cambodian girls and women are shy and quiet, but they are gradually becoming empowered. Many have worked with volunteers at various NGO’s to learn confidence building skills and are now practicing them as she is doing.

Then I met Kimleang at Green Lotus Tours and Coconut Jewellery who was also busy making attractive bracelets out of recycled bottle tabs and rubber. She is another enterprising young woman who has left her family home to pursue her own dreams. She has started a small school in a nearby village and struggles to keep it going by crafting and selling her jewellery for the enterprising young Cambodian fellow whom she works for.

Kimleung showing one of her finished products.

Kimleang showing one of her finished products.

Typical Cambodian friendliness.

Typical Cambodian friendliness.

The next day as I was walking along a side street lined with various art galleries, a man on a motor bike stopped me to ask in perfect English what the difference was between “shall”and “will”. I was nonplussed! Reaching back into my memories of learning and teaching English grammar, I was able to come up with a fairly accurate definition for both. He quickly hopped off his bike, took off his helmet, and suggested we sit at a nearby bench so he could talk some more. He got right to his point which was to tell me a bit about his past during the Khymer regime and what he was now doing to help rebuild his country. I was impressed but couldn’t help but be somewhat skeptical since there are always the scammers who want your money for a good story. However, this fellow even had brochures about his school, and was going so far as to carry a huge book with names of all the donors who had given something or volunteered at the school. Now I was doubly impressed! You guessed it: I became another of his donors. If you want to read more about his school go to :

The children in Cambodian are so visible which is to be expected in a country where old folk are a rarity. We need to remember that many of them never survived the Khymer Rouge regime when over one fifth of the population was killed. In the cities at least, it appears that the main focus of the parents is get their children educated as best they can. In the evenings you could see groups of kids being coached in what looked like judo or tai kwan do. At all hours of the night parents were playing with their children in the parks along the river. Physical activity seemed to be high on their list of nightly activities. I didn’t see many kids playing with their I phones, and I certainly did not see one obese kid!

Kids keeping active with judo.

Kids keeping active with judo.

Many of the schools in Cambodia were set up and are run by NGO’s which are considered to be far superior to the government schools which are underfunded and totally corrupt. There was an  NGO school located next door to my hotel and every morning at precisely 7 a.m. I was awakened by the children as they sang their national anthem before heading inside for their classes. I learned from a very interesting American teacher that this school like many of the NGO schools is failing to provide the kind of education needed by the Cambodian students which helped me understand why I had met two Cambodians this year and one last year at the Meas Family Homestay who were setting up their own.  His job now was to visit all the schools in the area to determine if the level of English instruction was meeting expectations and in the best interests of the children. Time and time again I heard from the Cambodians that the only way for them to move forward and to get their country back on its feet was to learn proper English.

Students heading to class at the NGO school next to my hotel.

Students heading to class at the NGO school next to my hotel.

On my walkabouts I also witnessed several locations where colourful tents had been erected for wedding ceremonies. It seems that Cambodian weddings can take place over several days so tents are put up with beautifully decorated tables and chairs for friends and neighbours to come and give their blessings to the bride and groom and their families. The same is done for funerals with the only distinction being that everything is laid out in white. Such ceremonies are not carried out by monks in the temples; however, the monk does come to the families with their prayers and blessings.

Preparing the tent for a Cambodian wedding.

Preparing the tent for a Cambodian wedding.

Maybe I didn’t get to see many of the sites that Battambang had to offer and perhaps too much of my visit was taken up with trying to get my computer problems ironed out, but the one thing I do know is that I will not forget all the beautiful Cambodians and a few barangs (Cambodian name for foreigners) that I met while I was there. I felt a tremendous feeling of renewal among those I talked to, and my sense is this can be traced back to the creation of the Phare visionaries and the good works that this organization is still carrying on today.