Wednesday, September 29, 2010

29 September 2010

Yesterday was the first time I drove some place that I had never been (i.e. by having someone else take us there).  I looked on the map, and decided to explore some of the touristic charms of Ayutthaya off the "island".   Those of you on Facebook can see an album i posted there.
Ayutthaya city, capital of the province where I live, was the capital of Thailand for four hundred years or so, ending in 1767 (I think) when the invading Burmese torched and sacked the place.  The Thai response was basically to get up and move, since the city was uninhabitable.  They moved to Thonburi for a short while, then across the river to the current capital, Bangkok.
As far as I understand, it never occurred to the Thai that Ayutthaya's ruins were a treasure trove, until the fifth king of the current (Chakri) dynasty, known in English as King Chulalongkorn (successor to his father, King Mongkut, the king of "The King and I"), started work to restore it.  I think it may have been as a result of visiting the west and seeing how they preserved and respected old treasures.  The Thai respected their treasures, but apparently didn't know a ruined city was one.  Well, that was a hundred or so years ago.   There is now an endless supply of things to see on the island (I guess about 9 square miles) which was the location of the capital, as well as off the island in all directions.  The more modern part of Ayutthaya now lies to the east of the island.  In 1991 Ayutthaya was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Yesterday we visited Wat Chai Wattanaram, a ruin with a lot of remaining structure and statuary, though in poor condition.  It sits on the river, in a gorgeous location.  It's a huge complex for having just been a temple.  Next we went to St Joseph's church, founded by the French a few hundred years ago, but also succumbing to a blaze, and rebuild in the 19th century.  Didn't get a chance to go inside, but it's lovely and the grounds are lovely.  It has a school attached to it.
After that we went to Wat Putthaisawan, further down the river a short ways, with two boat landings on the temple grounds, and finally the Portuguese settlement, which is basically an archeological ruin with one special treat.... a building housing a lot of skeletons basically "baked" onto concrete slabs.  Unfortunately there is nothing further left of the settlement of the first Europeans to appear in old Siam.  This site was restored in the past twenty years thanks to the Thai government, the Portuguese embassy, and the Gulbenkian Foundation (Portugal's greatest cultural benefactors).
Getting to these places was interesting.  Signage is a bit whimsical on streets, but we found what "had to be " the right road to the first place, and just followed it along with my nose.  It is amazing how "out in the country" we were along these roads.  The roads were very good, but you certainly felt like you were in the middle of nowhere.  Somehow we managed to find everything.  We were on our way to cross the river downstream about 3 miles, to come up the other side and visit the Japanese and Dutch settlements, but didn't make it yesterday.  Another trip.  There is enough to keep us busy without going more than 25 miles from home here.  Here's one picture of Wat Chai Wattanaram.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

10 sep 2010

Last week we had a couple of incredible storms.  The first one was a huge electrical storm, at about 6 pm, and in fact we lost about 90% of power for an hour or so.  The following night, again at about 6 pm, we had less lightning and thunder, but the winds were incredible, perhaps 50 mph, and it rained horizontally.  No real damage, and the good thing was the image you can see above as a result of a rain the following day.
On another note, I am now a Thai driver.  You may have already read about my experience getting my driver's license.  I just got my car, and have eased into driving on the left side of the road.  Actually, it's quite easy and virtually intuitive.  What is NOT intuitive is trying to back up, since I have to turn my head in the opposite direction to what i'm used to to.  Backing up is a valuable skill here because all places with mall-style parking feature back-in parking.  The aisles are a bit narrow, so everyone backs in to get out more easily.  When I get a chance, I'll show you a special feature of thai mall parking: double-parking and leaving your car for people to push it out of the way.  But I'll describe it here, because in fact the car is specially equipped to be set up for this!  Next to the gear shift, there is a place to insert the car key!  With the car turned off, you insert this key and pull the car into neutral.  In this way, if you double park, blocking people who are parked in the actual spaces, they will very carefully push your car out of the way, and pull out of the space.  This would never work in the US with people screaming "don't touch my car" and also people not being quite so careful about things.   You have to see it to believe it.  It's almost a tourist attraction, I think.
So far my longest drive (the day after I got the car) was a trip to Ayutthaya proper, about 30 minutes, mostly on quiet country highways, one a white-knuckle road (the one that goes by my house), with one lane in each direction and people pulling out to pass.  The other road, about 20minutes of the trip, is a divided highway and later just a city street.  I even managed to fill the gas on the way back.  There are all kinds of fuel here, including E20 (from vegetable oil; usable in my car but not best performance), Diesel 85, LPG, NGV (most buses, and some people add a second fuel tank of NGV to their cars; it's dirt cheap, but kind of scary), "gasohol" 91 and gasohol 95.  I am recommended to use 91 or 95, with 95 the best option.  That is one lot of octane!!!  95 costs about 30 baht a litre, about 95 cents a litre, which is probably about $3.50 a gallon or so.  Not cheap.  NGB is only about 8.50 and LPG 10.50.  Absolutely no self service here, but a tip is not expected at the gas station, though "keep the change" rounded up is common, I think.  At least that's what I do!
Okay, ready to drive in Thailand?