Tag - earth

Ban Lung, Cambodia

Ban Lung, Cambodia
Ban Lung, Cambodia
Ban Lung, Cambodia

Known by the local people as ‘dey krahorm’, which means red earth in Khmer, Ban Lung is a modest town where you will find genuine people and friendly faces. This is a great place to use as a base while you explore the surrounding countryside and there are a number interesting attractions nearby.

Most people travel to Ban Lung to visit the nearly Boeng Yeak Lom. Also known as Yak Lom Lake, this is an impressive volcanic crater filled with freshwater. There is a well worn train leading from the town to the volcano and the trek takes about an hour each way. Take the time to fully explore the volcano and have a swim in the cool waters. Watch out for the legendary Yak Lom monster as you swim and visit the nearby culture centre, which contains some interesting information about the volcano and items made by the tribes people who live in the area.  

This is a great place for trekking and you can wander through the countryside, with its rich red earth and pretty villages. The scenery here is simply spectacular and there is plenty to hold the attention.

Scattered around Ban Lung are a number of small villagers where tribes people live, following the same cultural styles and general life styles that they have practiced for hundreds of years. Most of the tribes people gather at Ban Lung market to buy and sell goods, and this is a great place for people watching and to also pick up a bargain or two.

The market is also a good place to pick up a cheap, tasty meal. There are a number of food stalls scattered around the town as well as restaurants and hotels, making this a good place to stay for a day or two.

Around the market place you will find a large number of small shops selling colourful precious stone. The gems come from the surrounding hills and also more distant places such as Sri Lanka. Although you should be careful about buying, browsing through the multi-hued stones can be a good way to spend an hour two.

Songkhla, Thailand

Songkhla, Thailand
Songkhla, Thailand
Songkhla, Thailand
Songkhla, Thailand

Songkhla can be found in the very south of Thailand, near the Malaysian border. Located 950 kilometres from Bangkok, Songkhla is known as ‘the great city on two seas’. Songkhla’s history and culture is quite different to much of Thailand, making this an interesting place to get to know. About a third of the population is Muslim, and most are of Malay ancestry, which means that they speak the Patani Malay language.  

Songkhla has a lot to offer, whether you are interested in history and culture, appreciate stunning scenery or simply want to chill on the beach and swim in the sea. The town is endowed with ancient ruins, arts, and places of cultural importance. Songkhla is a melting pot of Thais, Chinese and Malays and charms visitors with its unique traditions, dialect, and folk entertainment.  

To discover the area’s history, the first stop should be The Songkhla National Museum, while the Phathammarong Museum is also a great source of local knowledge. The Bronze Mermaid Statue usually appears on postcards of Songkhla and represents the Hindu-Buddhist earth goddess Mae Thorani.  

Songkhla is well known for its interesting architectural styles, which can best be seen in its temples and chedis. Some good examples are Wat Cha Thing Phra, Wat Pha Kho, Wat Chai Mongkhon and Wat Matchimawat. The city’s black and white stupas – known as Chedi Ong Dam and Chedi Ong Khao – should not be missed and Sating Phra Ancient Community is well worth a visit.  

Songkhla also contains some areas of stunning natural beauty. Top of the list are the Khao Nam Khang National Park with its jungle, caves and waterfalls and Khu Khut Waterfowl Park. As its name suggests, Namtok Boriphat Forestry Park features a large number of waterfalls and beautiful forest, while Wat Tham Khao Rup Chang is an interesting cave temple.  

Songkhla is blessed with a large number of caves to explore and mountain tops offering spectacular views over the area. A good place to start is Khao Nam Khang Historic Tunnel, while other mountains include Khao Tang Kuan, Khao Kao Seng and Khao Noi.  

There are some very pretty beaches to soak up the sun on including Hat Samila and Hat Sakom, while Hat Yai is the liveliest town and famous for fresh seafood and Muay  

Thai boxing matches. Whilst in Hat Yai, pay a visit to Wat Hat Yai Nai, which features a 35 meter reclining Buddha known as Phra Phut Mahatamongkon and the very pretty and peaceful Hat Yai Municipal Park.  

Amongst the area’s small and somewhat secluded islands are Koh Maeo and Koh Nu (cat and mouse islands) and Koh Yo, which is a very pretty island famous for its cotton weaving community.  

Of course, when it comes to eating, seafood dominates the menu. The best place to find a good selection of reasonably priced seafood is at the local night markets, where you can relax for a while at one of the small tables and watch the dramas of this charismatic area unfold around you.

Triggerfish and Turtles

diving_ko_taoI’m 28 years old in the year of Our Lord and I can say that very rarely do I finish a day on this lonely planet with a smile on my face the size of China. Yesterday I ate my evening meal whilst grinning from cheek to cheek. Why? Because I had become a scuba diver! Koh Tao, about 50 km from the east coast port of Chumphong in the Gulf of Thailand was the location for my first experiences under the sea. Tao is truly one of the most beautiful places on earth. Resident population 2000, 21 km square, main industries: diving, fishing, diving, growing coconuts and er, diving.

Rich with turtles (Koh Tao = Turtle Island) the flat sea around this utopia shimmers with a thousand shades of blue which change as the ever-present sun drenches the white beaches. Once a political prison and for a long time uninhabited, Tao seems like a place not long-discovered and now exploding into a Mecca for self-indulgent divers. Few laws govern this totally chilled environment but no buildings higher than the ubiquitous palm trees are allowed. Under royal patronage, the island’s only tourist attraction is a large rock inscribed with the late monarch’s initials. The Thai population is trying to maintain it’s roots whilst welcoming tourist dollars by accommodating westerners with European cuisine. Hollywood blockbusters and the latest Fat Boy sounds in bars and the 2 clubs mix with the tinkling tunes of the waves on the shore in the evening. In all, a pleasant sense of harmony prevails and I felt as though I had found a special place.

The best was yet to come. Day one of our 4 day PADI Open Water diving course brought us to Ao Chalok Ban Kao, a secluded bay on the southwestern shores of Tao. We dived to a shallow 2m and completed the first job any diver must do- breathe! Taking off our respirators and masks underwater and then replacing them was quite a frightening experience as we felt like humans out of this world instead of fish out of water. And it is another world. Until this week I had only seen the amazing life that flourishes in tropical waters in tanks. In their own environment and illuminated by glowing sunlight, fish all sorts of sea life seem to emanate a beautiful aura which is difficult to describe.

Dives 2 and 3 brought me more confidence in my equipment and abilities underwater until I felt as though I could fly. Adding the 3rd (vertical) dimension reminded me flying and I immersed myself in the joys of swooping up and down from 5 to 10 metres, aiming for stunning coral then chasing my bubbles up towards the bright surface. Looking at my friend Paul, we made our “OK” signals every 2 minutes- as much wanting him to know I was not drowning as much as seeing that he was alright. As our minutes under water stacked up we soon started feeling like Jaques Custeau. We saw a stingray, which expertly dashed away from us when we disturbed it and a couple of triggerfish. These 40cm long fellas are common to Tao and are known for their ferocious defence of their territory. Once a pair of triggerfish (who are monogamous for life) nest, they create a conical exclusion zone with the base of the cone where they spawn and the large circle on the surface. The tactic of the sentinel male is to front you out until you leave his territory. A diver had 4 stitches in his forehead last week as he tried to stand up to the Daddy triggerfish. Happily, the 2 that we saw were happy enough to let us swim on by unheeded.

Our last dive led us to 18 metres and we played football with a rock surrounded by an audience of unbelievable coral, stingrays and Everton mint fish (?) Paul scored an amazing goal with a logic-defying overhead kick which beat the keeper in extra time. I sat on the marine subs bench feeling rather left out. On our way back to the dive boat we saw the captain of our boat with his harpoon in hand and tattoos over every part of his skin. At the surface he was proud to show off a red fish which was easily 2 foot long and would no doubt pay for his family to do whatever Thais do on a Saturday night.

On Thursday night, myself, Paul and 4 assorted Brits (90% of westerners in October are apparently British with the majority becoming French in April!?) took a 4 X 4 roller coaster ride to the top of one of Tao’s two peaks. Venus Park is a nightclub on a cliff face-come-jungle which is as close to Enid Blyton’s Land of the Faraway Tree as I can imagine. Try and imagine this: 1000 westerners and Thais full of cheer dancing until dawn. It was: EXTREME!

And so we had to leave Koh Tao. It was too fun. It was so beautiful. It has captured me and I will return. For now, we have continued on our way to the next adventure.

Isaan Life – Harvesting Rice

isaan_life_1
Isaan Life, Ban Ku Muang, Ubon Ratchathani, North East Thailand
Isaan Life, Ban Ku Muang, Ubon Ratchathani, North East Thailand
Isaan Life, Ban Ku Muang, Ubon Ratchathani, North East Thailand
Isaan Life, Ban Ku Muang, Ubon Ratchathani, North East Thailand
Isaan Life, Ban Ku Muang, Ubon Ratchathani, North East Thailand
Isaan Life, Ban Ku Muang, Ubon Ratchathani, North East Thailand

BAN KU MUANG, UBON RATCHATHANI: Last week I found myself hip-deep in the sun-drenched rice paddies of northeast Thailand, 13,000 kilometers from the snow-covered fields of my home in Vermont in the northeastern United States. Overcome with curiosity about the labor-intensive, harvesting process that produces one of the world’s most plentiful crops, I decided to see how it’s done first hand. Well let me tell you, it’s back breaking work! I have a new found respect for everyone that works in those rice paddies. It was two of the more uncomfortable, difficult, backbreaking days of work I have every experienced in my life.

Aidan Curley an English teacher here in Isaan, contacted a family and asked if I could work for a couple of days in Ban Ku Muang, a small farming village encapsulated by rice fields. They were more than happy to have an extra pair of hands, even if they were unskilled. I had no idea what I was getting into. Waking up before seven a.m. for school back home had always been a struggle, but waking up at five a.m. to harvest rice seemed like a suicide wish. Bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, I trudged off to work at dawn and soon found myself surrounded and submerged in a sea of tan rice plants sticking up from the soggy earth. I wore a pair of mud boots, unfortunately too small for my feet, a hat to shelter my pale face from being burnt to a crisp, wool gloves to provide small protection from the razor sharp sickle used to cut the crop and a jacket to keep the sun off my arms.
 
My co-workers, all dressed the same, were part of an extended family including the mother, Youanji; father, Naiton; son, Naicheng and a daughter, Nangdam. They had twice the energy and resolve that I had that morning even though they had been working the fields for almost four months straight, every single day!
 
For the first hour of ‘Gee Ow Cow’, as the rice harvest is known, Naicheng guided me through the painstaking cutting ritual that is repeated a thousand times each workday. He spoke no English, but my Thai is good as I spent a high school semester in Ubon Ratchathani and studied the language intensively back home as well. As a first-time harvester my job was simply to cut the stalks and leave them on the ground for others to process. Using my sickle I would gather the rice plants into my hand and then slash the stalks just centimeters away from my fingers. I would repeat the process until my hands were full. Twice in the first hour I cut clean through my glove taking skin off of my hand. My co-workers were amused but encouraged me in my effort.
 
By the eight a.m. breakfast break I was fully awake and beginning to work into a rhythm. I was also exhausted. Breakfast was enjoyable, it included a dish called ‘Sok Lek’ which is raw meat soaked in blood, and ‘Lao Cow’ a white whiskey. Naiton explained: “The Sok Lek will make you strong, and the whiskey will make you forget about how hot it’s going to get.” This sent the other three into a fit of laughter causing me to feel nervous.
 
Sure enough the blistering heat came and so did a killing back pain. Bending down for hours each day for months, I wondered why my co-workers weren’t all hunchbacks. After only half a day I was beginning to feel ancient myself. Naicheng and his family had beautiful spirits; he turned to me after a while and asked, “Does your back hurt?” I returned his question with a smile: “A little bit.” He smiled back and asked: “Are you hot from the sun?” I laughed through the sweat pouring down my face: “A little bit.” Naicheng looked at me knowingly and said: “That’s why we must talk to each other because talking will make you forget about the pain in your back and the heat from the sun.” It was a very sweet thing to say and he was a right. After talking about my country and his, his life and mine, I began to forget the pain and heat. I was into the rhythm of the harvest. The back pain was unbearable however when we quit for the day at five p.m. I dragged myself onto Aidan’s motorcycle and collapsed exhausted in my bed. I was fast asleep by eight thirty.
 
The following day was much like the first however I moved a little faster. I was confident but still a novice. I was also foolish. I wore a short-sleeved shirt and by mid morning I had a horrid, painful sunburn. The conversation turned to food. Youanji was very interested in the foods I had eaten in Thailand. I love Thai food and back home am considered an expert by my friends. Even my brother, a professional chef asks me questions about Thai spices and cuisine. Youanji asked me: “Have you ever eaten field mouse before?” Thinking that she was joking I replied, “No, but I’d love to try it.” She seemed excited and invited me to dinner the next night. I was skeptical thinking perhaps she was teasing me.
 
To be polite I accepted but sure enough as soon as I arrived to her home a glass of whiskey and a big platter of roasted meat was placed in front of me. I could see it was a mouse or at least a rodent; it had a long tail that Naiton snatched and crunched into his mouth. My image of a field mouse was the tiny creature that hides in the lush green grass back home. This mouse was more like an oversized rat; it was the size of my forearm. Not knowing what to expect I picked up a meaty looking piece and slowly put it into my mouth. Bam! Steak, chicken, beef all thrown together into one delicious bite! I couldn’t believe I was eating mouse. I was converted from a doubter to an addict in one bite.
 
Harvesting rice is something I will not choose as my life’s work. I probably wouldn’t ever want to do it again; the long hours are too much for too little. However, the people that do this everyday, some seven days a week, are generous, hard working and fun loving and I respect them deeply.

Eli Sherman is a graduate of Montpelier High School in Montpelier, the capital of the state of Vermont, USA, and a “young blood writer” living in Ubon Ratchathani, Isaan – Northeastern Thailand. He’s been to Isaan four times in his short life. Once on a cross cultural exchange with Montpelier to Thailand Project; once coming for five months as an exchange student at Benchama Maharat school in Ubon; and again coming as a guide for Montpelier to Thailand Project. He now works as a volunteer at the Institute of Nutrition Research Field Station, Mahidol University in Ubon Ratchathani and is writing to present Isaan Life to the world, and especially KhaoSanRoad.com visitors.