Categories
Environment

UK to tackle bogus carbon schemes

Following on from my previous post about carbon offset schemes, I discovered via the BBC that the government has decided to provide a voluntary standard for schemes. Their initial recommendation is to go for one of the following four schemes that meet their evolving standard:

The last one, Carbon Offsets Ltd., is difficult to find information on. It is in partnership with the Airport Operators Association, probably as a result of the government’s investigations, which seems to have been initiated by the AOA in the first place.

In related news (from last week), Tony Blair eventually capitulated to demands to carbon-offset his personal flights too.

 

Categories
Travel

Oslo for New Year’s Eve

I spent the last few days of 2006 in Oslo with a group of friends from London. For New Year’s Eve itself we went to the restaurant on the 37th floor of the Radisson Plaza Hotel. Despite fog and low cloud earlier in the day the view from the hotel at night was clear and stretched on for miles. We had a very good quality 7 course meal (with extra helpings of some courses thanks to a friendly and very accomodating waiter) and champagne-toasted the new year in. In Oslo at midnight fireworks are let off in so many back gardens and city parks and squares that they blanket the sky. Many were set off within metres of the hotel, and at our elevation we were afforded an eye level view of rockets exploding.
 
Julie and I could have done without Heathrow’s baggage handling mess, though. We had to get by on the contents of Julie’s handbag and our credit cards for the entire trip! We’ve been back two days and still have no idea when we can get the bags back. I’m glad it eventually made the news. Baggage handling staff claimed that ‘little managers’ had tried to ‘cover up’ the mess from ‘big managers’.
 
In all the trip was well worth it. I got to meet up with an old friend, Morten, and share his home made waffles and strawberry jam at his house. We took in some of the sights and many of the beers and wines and saw in the new year in style.
 
[Edit] We eventually received the bags back, 13 days after the outbound flight. Now it’s time for the hassle of claiming compensation… 
Categories
Environment

Carbon emissions offsets for flights

This morning I was alerted by a LastMinute.com newsletter of an organisation I’ve been meaning to look up for a while. They are called "Climate Care" (www.climatecare.org) and they allow you to calculate the impact your activities have on carbon emissions into the environment. They also identify and fund environmental projects in developing countries to offset these emissions.
 
Of particular interest to me are the calculators on the site for offsetting flight emissions. Having just been on honeymoon in South East Asia I have been feeling guilty about the effect on the environment of our travel (but not so guilty as to have arranged our honeymoon in Bognor Regis instead). They didn’t have all the flights on there, but as a rought estimate it turns out I had the following impact:
 
Your Carbon Profile Tonnes CO2 Value
1 Flight (Quatar) 2.89 £ 21.70
2 Flight (Bangkok) 2.90 £ 21.79
3 Flight (Vietnam) 0.46 £ 3.49
 
The Bangkok to Vietnam leg actually included stopping in Cambodia but Siem Reap airport wasn’t listed. Likewise, Koh Samui airport wasn’t listed so that’s missed off entirely.
 
A word of warning: Climate Care is not a charity. It is a company who "pay a fixed royalty of 10% of annual turnover to Climate Care Ltd – a separate company that has provided the Trust with financial and management resources over the years" (taken from here).
 
It’s a shame this isn’t a tax efficient mechanism (e.g. Gift Aid for charities) for offsetting carbon costs. I’ll do some more research before going with this organisation and let you know what I find.
 
Categories
Computers and Internet

Vista: Windows Experience Index

Just a short note to let you know my PC scored a "Windows Experience Index" of 5.2 in Windows Vista. This is quite a good score, apparently. In order to determine the score, Vista gives the computer a thorough workout in all its extermities and scores each component in turn (graphics card, memory, CPU, hard disk). The final mark is some kind of combination of these scores, giving a value between 1 and 5.9 (currently).
 
All in all this means I can be confident that writing emails will be really, really fast.
Categories
Computers and Internet

Vista: Windows Easy Transfer

I installed Vista a couple of days ago (64 bit version). I’m intending it to become by primary development machine and file server at home . So I kicked off the Windows Easy Transfer wizard to copy all my files and accounts from my old Windows XP box. I decided to do it over the network, which is, unfortunately, a 10Mbps wireless connection. I left it going for 10 hours and the progress bar looked roughly 10% completed. Doing the maths, that totals four days of file transfers. Good job I’ve got my laptop around to muck about on in the mean time.
 
Advice:
1) Pay careful attention to what the transfer wizard is proposing to copy across. Year old virtual machines running some beta of Longhorn are probably not essential any more.
2) Don’t use a dog slow connection. The tool offers many transfer mechanisms including CD/DVD, removable harddrive, easy transfer cable (i.e. crossover USB cable).
 
I’m keen to know if I can interrupt the transfer, knock a few files off the list and then resume, without having to redo the files its already copied over. I’m also worried that stopping the transfer mid flow (in order to opt for a lower tech solution like Robocopy) might leave a jagged and inconsistent set of files on the new box.
 
So maybe I’ll wait four days…
Categories
Computers and Internet

Flash Earth

If you’ve tried out Google Earth or any of the sattelite maps the various search engine provides, then you might like to have a look at http://www.flashearth.com/
 
It allows you to select the source for the images. Zoom in to your own neighbourhood then flick from Google to MSN to Yahoo (and others) to see which one is the most up to date. (Google by about 3 years, for me!)
Categories
Travel

Honeymoon ramblings – Cambodia

This is the second part of my three part write up of our honeymoon. As I said in the first part, it’s a bit long winded as it has been written mostly as an aide-mémoire for Julie and I.
 
21 Sep
We failed to get up in time for breakfast for the third consecutive day, and packed up and left the Shangri-La for our trip to Cambodia. I was worried that it would be a while before we could experience luxury like that again.
 
The Bangkok Airways flight to Siem Reap in northern Cambodia was a short hop for us compared with the flight from London to Bangkok. We flew in a fairly small plane with all the accompanying shakes and wobbles. The landscape below started to look flooded, and frequently it became difficult to tell lake from farmland. This was the wet season in Cambodia.
 
We paid for a 5 dollar taxi journey from Siem Reap airport that ended up costing us $150. This price hike was chiefly by our taxi driver, Sunhour, suggesting that he should be our $25 per day personal chauffeur and tour guide. This we agreed to without ever checking whether this was a reasonable price. Sunhour assured us it was very competitive though, and that was (evidently) good enough for me.
 
He took us to the Lotus Angkor hotel to check in. It’s a new hotel and the spacious rooms put me more in mind of four star hotels despite the facilities only qualifying it for three. There was a pool, a reasonable restaurant and very friendly staff. As we arrived, our bags were taken from our car to our room, we were seated with some juice and the checking in process was completed with little need of our participation.
 
Once checked in, and with barely time to give the room a cursory glance, we hurried back out to our waiting driver (mainly due to my feelings of guilt at leaving him waiting, despite his assurances that he didn’t mind). The agenda was a trip to Phnom Bakheng to get a scenic view over Angkor Wat.
 
The trip there included having our photos taken and passes issued to get us into the Angkor national park. The laminate still hot in our hands, we proceeded into the park.
 
The drive took us past a monkey by the roadside (there were armies more of them to look forward to in the temples, admittedly in carvings of Hindu mythology) and on to a large body of water that was to become quite familiar; Angkor Wat’s moat. It’s the only temple moat in the area to remain full of water, complete with locals bathing (or showering, as Sunhour’s English would have it) and it contained leeches (again, one of Sunhour’s additions). 
 
We proceeded on to get our first view, from the road, of Angkor Wat. It was very exciting to see, in real life, the sight that Julie had been dreaming about seeing for years. From the road the West gate was the most prominent feature, with the temple itself poking its five peaks over the wall teasingly.
 
This wasn’t our destination for the day though. It was five pm and already the light was dimming, so we went straight on to Phnom Bakheng. This is a hill topped with a modestly sized temple and, on a good day, a view of the towers of Angkor Wat. We got the view, but the haziness of a rainy season afternoon in Cambodia meant it was a bit of a struggle. Sunrise is probably a great view as the towers would be silhouetted or obliquely lit, but that would have required a 5:30am hotel departure. This was a honeymoon, not a boot camp. We settled for a picture of the sunset between some clouds on the other side of the hill and then struggled down the unlit path in near darkness.
 
At the base of the hill we battled our way back through a throng of children we had encountered on the way up, all trying to sell us something. Guide books, normally priced at over $20, were available at prices as low as $5. Where did they come from? Illicit printing facilities somewhere I guess. More above board were the multitude of bamboo bracelets, silk shawls, bird whistles and plain old food and drink. Every walk into or out of a temple complex was accompanied by a cacophony of “mister, you want water?” and “mister, you have a dollar?”
 
Cunning tactics were used by the kids in the common event of us declining their wares. An example of an exchange from later in the trip was:
 
“Mister, you want t-shirt?”
“No, thank you.”
“Where you from?”
“London”
“Ah! Capital, England. 65 million people. Rains a lot.” Where are they taught this?! And then, “what’s your name?”
“Josh”
“You buy from me when you come back? I remember you.” We were on the way into a temple. I gave away a vague promise that I’d think about it. Sure enough, when we left the temple two hours later she was there: “Josh, you buy t-shirt from me, you promised!” Then I had to smile and try not to look like a real git as I declined again, looking to all and sundry as if I’d broken a promise to this child.
 
Another one went:
 
“Lady, you want a guide book? 15 dollars?”
“No, thank you, I have it already.”
“Which one you have? This one is the new edition!” (That one impressed Julie for its originality.)
 
 
From the base of Phnom Bakheng our driver took us to a restaurant that doubled as evening entertainment and was replete with large Japanese tour groups (large in group numbers, not individuals’ weight). The fare was a buffet of traditional food and a troupe of traditional dancers. Both were good, but the former included a chicken foot in some red curry that rather freaked Julie out. After the show the dancers put up with a good twenty minutes of being joined by Japanese tourists for photo ops. Julie, with her Hampton Court experience, heartily empathised. She observed that a common practice amongst Japanese is to make the victory ‘V’ sign in photos, whatever the situation. Watch out for it; she’s right. If you have an explanation, let us know.
 
22 Sep
We had our earliest morning yet in Asia, getting up at 7.30. We visited Angkor Thom in the morning and Angkor Wat in the late afternoon.
 
Arriving at Angkor Thom the first sight was the gateway. The road to the gate was flanked by a series of stone demons on one side and stone gods on the other. These were involved in a tug of war, representing the scene in Hindu mythology where the ocean is churned to produce an elixir of life (and a number of other wonderful things). Why are most other creation myths more fun than Genesis?
 
The first building we saw inside Angkor Thom was the Bayon Temple, a Buddhist temple. This was our first close up view of a temple and we marvelled at the 800 year old carvings. Large carved faces stared out of each face of the 54 towers.
 
We moved on to the Baphuon temple. This is the site of a major restoration project. The path to the temple is a French restored raised walkway standing on hundreds of pillars. The temple itself was originally Hindu, dedicated to Shiva, but in the 15th century it was converted to a Buddhist temple (like many others). In the process of the conversion, the second wall up on the west of the temple was dismantled and reassembled in the form of a 70 metre long reclining Buddha. We saw the general form of the Buddha, but a lot more restoration is going to be necessary to return this amazing sight to its former glory.
 
Our driver had left us to walk around at the area of Baphuon, and we accidentally picked up a tour guide as we walked. He just started talking to us, telling us about the temple and the surrounds and suggesting a walking route to accompany him upon. A very clever tactic. It became clear we weren’t going to extricate ourselves without money changing hands, which I didn’t mind so much. However, he ended up asking for 1000 Thai Baht, the equivalent of £15 sterling. Now, call me tight, but I wasn’t sure our ten minute tour warranted this! He pleaded that he needed it to pay his Thai English teacher. I think we ended up parting with a third of this, which was still very high in terms of the Cambodian cost of living.
 
Other sights in Angkor Thom included the Elephant terrace, from which royals would view public ceremonies and which formed the base of a royal pavilion, and the row of tall thin Suor Prat towers (used for individual meditation).
 
Sunhour took us on to a temple called Ta Keo which will be remember chiefly for being our first experience of the insanely steep stairs most of the temples have. There are no hand rails and no concept of public liability insurance. Regressing to a toddler-like traversal of the stairs should not be laughed at.
 
Ta Prohm was the next destination. The memorable feature of this temple was that it was the first we saw of tree roots holding up some parts and slowly tearing down other parts of the temple. I got a real sense of the strength of these trees as I saw them eating the temples up.
 
Lastly this day we went into Angkor Wat itself. It’s the largest religious structure in the world (according to the Guinness book of records). The main gate is built into a wall wide enough to house a corridor. Within this corridor, to either side of the main gate, are large statues of a many-armed Vishnu and Buddha. The theory is that the Vishnu statue was originally in the centre tower of the third tier as the temple was dedicated to him. It is supposed to have been moved to the gate when the temple was converted for Buddhist use.
 
As we stepped through the outer gateway onto the long raised walkway to the temple, we took a moment to take it all in. I remember promising Julie six years previously that we’d go and see this temple one day, and it was funny to stand there and think back to that conversation in her flat above the shop in Kingston.
 
The carving in Angkor Wat is more detailed and more prevalent than elsewhere in the area. The architecture is considered classic Khmer. And it’s big. Like all the temples it is offset from the centre (but to the west rather than the east) of its outer enclosure and like most it has three tiers. Again, like most of the temples, the pyramidal shape is supposed to represent Mount Meru, home of the Hindu Gods. The stairs to each tier get progressively steeper, and climbing down again from the third tier was one of the more scary things I think either of us have had to do, even with the aid of a recently added iron handrail for tourists.
 
Tired from our first full day templing, we elected to eat at the hotel that night. I also phoned forward to Hanoi to book a hotel for us. The quality of the call left something to be desired, but through copious repetition and loud speaking of English I was left with the strong impression that I’d succeeded.
 
23 Sep
Sunhour revealed that we were to take a rather longer trip today to see Banteay Srei. Obviously this involved handing over money for excess petrol that he’d forgotten to mention before. I didn’t mind, as the price of petrol there seems to be out of proportion to the rest of the cost of living.
 
Banteay Srei is known for its intricate carvings that are similar in proportional coverage to that of Angkor Wat. However, it’s tiny! There are no steps up into each tier, and the buildings are barely head height in places. It was commissioned by a king’s counsellor and is over 1000 years old. The carvings, in sandstone, have survived remarkably well. Even though it took us an hour to get there, given Cambodia’s road quality and speed limits, it was worth the visit.
 
On the way there and back we passed a lot of farmer’s dwellings. Most of these were stilt houses, often with walls made with panels of woven bamboo leaves. The farmers grow rice or watermelon trees, depending on the season.
 
They also grow coconut palms for various purposes. Ultimately the wood is good quality for building with, but as the palm is growing they make use of everything it sheds: The leaves are used for weaving and packaging, the coconuts are eaten, obviously, and the flowers (on the male trees especially) help produce palm sugar. They poke at the flower with a pointed stick and then catch the drops of liquid that ensue. These drops are a weak sugar solution which they then reduce down to a syrup and ultimately to solid lumps of palm sugar.
 
On the way back from Banteay Srei, we stopped to buy some tubes of these palm sugar lumps, wrapped in palm leaf. They have a quality of fudge about them, and a distinctive flavour. I enjoyed them, but they’re very sweet and I couldn’t manage more than a couple of mouthfuls that morning.
 
We visited several other temples that day, and I won’t go into details about them all. For the record, they were:
Banteay Samré: Built in the same style as Angkor Wat, particularly the central tower.
Pre Rup
Banteay Kdei
Preah Khan. Actually, this one is worth mentioning in more than just passing. This temple has been seriously damaged by pepper trees, but the resulting intertwining of roots and stonework is beautiful. The conservationists had to pull down one of the trees here, ironically, to save the building from becoming more damaged. I did my bit by trying to identify which of a set of hundreds of fallen blocks contained a key piece of carving, but I didn’t get very far. Separately from its ruinous look, it was also quite a large, complex and historically significant temple. It was a city built on the site of a victory against invasion from neighbouring Chams. It also housed a Buddhist university with around 100,000 attendants and servants and 1000 teachers. It was dedicated to King Jayavarman VII’s father, and it’s interesting that it is as similarly overrun with jungle as Ta Prohm, which was dedicated to his mother.
 
Temples over for the day, we ate on the balcony of the Madame Butterfly restaurant that night. It’s a little pricey as restaurants there go, but it was nice to be out and about rather than in the hotel, and it was good to have a quiet romantic meal in contrast to the touristy buffet of the first night.
 
24 Sep
We went back to Angkor Wat to take in the bits for which our legs had been too tired the last time round. We gave ourselves a proper tour around the carvings in the first floor galleries using one of the guidebooks of dubious origin but quality information. The galleries showed different scenes from Hindu mythology. The churning was there, in exquisite detail. Also there were scenes involving monkey armies with their generals playing important roles in the Hindu history. (I don’t know whether to call it myth or history; I’m sure I’m offending someone whichever I choose.)
 
Other temples we visited this day were:
Neak Pean
Ta Som
East Mabey
 
By the time we had finished with the temples there was, predictably, no time to go into town to visit the markets as per Sunhour’s plan. We’re not the fastest of temple tourists, but that’s as much to do with our long sit downs to cope with templeoverloadus as it is to do with fastidious reading of the guide book and detailed examination of carvings.
 
We went straight to the floating village. It was during this journey that our driver let slip the information that we were going to have to pay another $15 each for the boat hire. Evidently we looked like money grew under our toe nails so we didn’t need advance warning of these costs, or indeed the opportunity to decide whether we thought a floating village was worth $30 and the inevitable child tax that would follow. As it turned out, it was worth it, and enough off the main tourist track that it wasn’t festooned with guide book sellers.
 
To get to the lake, we drove through Siem Reap proper for the first time. It was a lot bigger than I’d envisaged, having mainly been exposed to the rural communities in the national park thus far. I saw first hand the schools and university of which I had initially doubted the existence.
 
We stopped off to buy the tickets and then drove out through wetter and wetter suburbs. There were properties with cars on driveways that clearly weren’t going to move again until the impromptu lake between their house and the road had evaporated. This would start happening in November. I hoped they’d been grocery shopping recently.
 
Eventually we reached the lake. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of Khmers had beaten us to it, celebrating the end of the Buddhist festival by picnicking and driving on the wrong side of the road (the latter was, I suspect, not purely a holiday activity but I mention it here because it’s particularly nerve wracking on a road surrounded by water and was doubly so on the way back in the dark).
 
We battled our way to where the quay currently lay. I say currently because the lake itself differs in layout and depth depending on the season. In the rainy season the Mekong river swells with run-off from the Himalayas and floods this lake, raising levels by several meters and increasing the surface area, by a factor of three, to 9000 square kilometres.
 
We boarded a boat crewed by a couple of 18-20 year olds and set off. Immediately we were alongside the top of a forest. The trees reached a mere half metre above the water.
 
We saw many house boats nestled amongst the trees and several small and slim rowing boats with conical hatted pilots snaking their way between them plying wares and selling supplies. The majority of people living out here on the lake were refugees of the Vietnam war (or ‘American War’ depending on which of the nations you happen to be in). They’d long since obtained Cambodian identity cards but their culture was very much Vietnamese.
 
We left the forest behind and headed out into the open lake, soon cutting the engines. This was obviously par for the course and not some unfortunate miscalculation of fuel consumption as we were not alone in drifting out on the lake. It was most relaxing bobbing around, which was the point I guess. A boat full of orange robed monks were enjoying themselves too, jumping into the water and swimming about.
 
Our peace was disturbed by children rowing towards us in wash tubs with a single oar and half a plastic bottle to bail out water. Their English was poor, but they each knew how to ask for a dollar. Our driver told us that was too much and changed a dollar into Riel so we could give them each 1000 (about 20c/10p).
 
We were taken to a floating café with a “fish exhibition”. This comprised crocodiles, catfish and others. We shared a plate of prawns there with Sunhour. Julie bravely pulled the heads off (she doesn’t like the way fish stare at you even when they’re decidedly dead), dipping them in a pepper and lime sauce whilst Sunhour educated us on Cambodia’s recent history (the time of the Khmer Rouge) and his opinions on the recent change of king. The king had abdicated to allow his son to take over. His son, Sunhour claimed, was unknown to the Khmers, having spent all his life in France.
 
In the evening we went to a locals’ restaurant to try out frogs after I foolishly expressed an interest in the car on the way back from the floating village. I was trying to explain to Sunhour that fans of shark fin soup were seriously endangering sharks, and that frogs too were becoming endangered, but more because of environmental changes (it’s believed) than people eating them. I don’t think the concept of conservation or ecology got through to him much, as he took it as a desire from me to each frogs.
 
There was lots of ‘entertainment’ consisting of Cambodian singing and some kind of incomprehensible comedy at the restaurant. The frogs came deep fried with onions, their heads allegedly removed. Not so with the little frog hands and feet though. I was tiring in my attempts to pick meat off the bone and took up the driver’s suggestion to eat the bones too, as they were soft. They weren’t all that soft but I did so anyway. Eventually I persuaded Julie to eat a bit of frog too, but only because I was careful not to reveal the little deep fried hands and feet.
 
Meanwhile Julie’s fish came partly cooked and in a dish filled with sauce and vegetables sitting on top of a mini table top barbecue. This sat on a dish with lots of ice in it to save the table from burning. After five minutes Sunhour declared the fish and veg cooked and helped to serve.
 
Food is apparently always a family-style affair and dishes are brought to the table to share between everyone. Everything was shared at this meal including the wine (to save Julie from having to drink the whole bottle) and the three 750ml Angkor beers (shared equally between me and the driver despite him driving). Well, everything other than the bill, which Julie and I took care of.
 
Thank goodness for the 30km/h speed limit in Siem Reap, given the volume of beer that slipped down Sunhour’s throat.
 
25 Sep
We had a lie in and eventually surfaced about 12 to head down to the pool at the Lotus. We were hungry as we’d missed breakfast. I was craving something western, which is supposed to make you feel guilty when you’re in a foreign country with its own delicious food to try from. However, I’d eaten frog, and in my book that allows you a free pass to a club sandwich.
 
 
A drive back to the airport and a farewell to Sunhour saw the end of our Cambodia trip. Next stop was Hanoi.

 

Categories
Travel

Honeymoon ramblings – Bangkok

Disclaimer:
I’ve been promising some people (okay, my mother) that I’ll put some details of our honeymoon here. As we were travelling I made some brief notes, and some not-so-brief notes, for two purposes. One was to provide a reminder for us (as I don’t trust my memory) and the other was to remind me what all the dozens of photos were of. As a result, these notes are long. Dip in and out or just feel free to ignore them!
 
I’m dividing it into sections. The first deals with our trip to Bangkok…
 
17-18 Sep
"King of Qatar is going" read the driver’s note. This was at least an explanation for why we’d been sitting on the runway in a transfer bus, even if (in my opinion) it wasn’t a good one. He certainly could have put on a better complimentary meal than the canteen tray that accompanied our four hour wait for the next connecting flight to Bangkok.
 
So it wasn’t an auspicious start to our honeymoon, but it wasn’t too bad. The Qatar airline flights involved seat back movies on demand, friendly service and food that wasn’t bad at all. They made up for our long change at Doha. We arrived in Bangkok after midday Thai-time and proceeded via your typically overpriced airport ‘taxi’ to the delightfully well appointed Shangri-La hotel.
 
I must backtrack slightly to describe my first impressions of the Thai driving style. At first I thought we were being driven by a maniac with the patience of a petulant 5 year old. He was tooting his horn at every car, motorbike, bicycle and pedestrian as if their presence on the road was a personal insult to him. However, after a little more observation, I determined that this horn sounding was just a friendly "I’m here, please move, there’s a chance I might have to overtake". This was more effective than the use of an indicator as bikes, cars and tuk-tuks zig zagged all over the road and would cunningly zip into any carelessly left space between you and the car ahead given half a chance.
 
Another observation we made as we drove into the city proper was the number of people wearing yellow. I wondered if they were municipal employees, but this didn’t seem to fit as some were running shops, some buying things from shops, and others not doing anything useful. On closer inspection these tops bore the royal crest. They were a mark of the Thai people’s devotion to their king, and probably worn in celebration of the 60th year of his reign. There are posters, small and huge, all over the city declaring wishes of longevity for the king in both Thai and English.
 
Anyway, to the Shangri-La. Our bags were magicked from the taxi boot to our room as we checked in without us touching them at all. The room had a balcony with a view over the Chao Phraya river and we spent the odd hour out there with gin and tonic and books. The hotel had thoughtfully left us a congratulatory wedding card too, along with a bowl of utterly alien fruit. There were some tiny sweet bananas, but everything else took a great deal of investigation: Do you eat the skin of the pink tentacled thing? Are the seeds of these large fury grape looking things edible?
 
A friend had recommended a trip to some rooftop restaurant for our first night there to give us, literally, an overview of the city. I hadn’t taken much care in writing it down, but did remember the word ‘Banyon’. I successfully found a restaurant called ‘Banyon’ in the guide book and got the hotel to sort us out a cab to get there. Hidden in this flurry of organization were a couple of critical errors.
 
The first became apparent as we embarked upon our cab journey. Bangkok has one of the worst traffic management schemes in the world, it would seem. Our journey commenced in the middle of the four hour evening "rush hour". The traffic crawled along at slower than walking pace. I was going to write "snail’s pace" but I didn’t want to exaggerate. The taxi took us a distance of about 5 km (3 miles) but took us over an hour.
 
This brings me to the second critical error, which became obvious as the cab reached its destination. The Banyan restaurant we had found in the guide book (‘Le Banyan’) turned out not to be on the top of a high rise building but rather situated in a bungalow nestled halfway down a dark side street. It didn’t even appear to be open, and the barking guard dog was not an incentive to investigate the menu.
 
We thanked our cabbie for his efforts and took the matter of dinner back into our own hands. Not far down the main road ("Sukhumvit") stood a Raddisson hotel which turned out to have a fantastic Italian restaurant. For our shame our first meal in Thailand was not Thai, but I don’t feel too guilty about it as honeymooners should be doing things in luxury.
 
We took the Sky Train back; efficient, clean and it travelled a lot faster than 5km/h.
 
19 Sep
We slept late due in part to jet lag, in part to black out curtains and in part to a very luxurious room. We looked through the guide book to plan our day and chose to visit Wat Arun. We were keen to avoid the roads so took advantage of the hotel’s free ferry to ‘River City’ thinking we could pick up the main ferry service there. River City seems to be built for and visited by tourists. It seemed to be an air conditioned shopping mall, and we went no further than a river front restaurant for lunch. We both had a really hot Thai green curry with fresh fish. Finally we’d had some Thai food, to which the sheen of moisture on my brow attested.
 
Still in the mode of naïve tourists, we failed to find the municipal ferry pier there. Instead, we paid through the nose (comparatively; amazing how cheap one can get once accustomed to a local currency) for an otherwise thrilling private boat trip the rest of the way.
 
Wat Arun looks majestically over the river. It is the main temple (‘Wat’ means temple in Thailand and Cambodia) in the area of Bangkok called Thon Buri. This is the old capital of the city, the original Bangkok. The name "Bangkok" was moved to the east side of the river at a later date when Rama I decided to relocate the capital. The temple and surrounding buildings are being restored, and they’re in pretty good condition, all told. It’s still a site of meditation for Buddhists, of which there are many in Thailand.
 
A favourite technique for decorating temples, including Wat Arun, is to use shards of porcelain and mirror. These have an amazing effect in the sun with the buildings apearing to sparkle as you move around them. Wat Arun consists in the main of a temple and a central monument. The central monument is quite tall and with some very steep stairs which "represent the difficulties of reaching higher levels of existence" (Lonely Planet).
 
After browsing round the complex we took the ferry across the Chao Phraya and took an aimless wander through a market and down a long street lined with food and flower sellers. The profusion of fruit, cooked meats and flowers was matched with the hustle and bustle of so many people with so many stalls packed so tightly together. The stalls thinned out and we found ourselves mulling over a streetmap deciding what to do next.
 
A Thai chap approached us and asked, in reasonable English, if we needed some help. Immediately my eyes were darting around looking for the accomplice that was going to steal Julie’s bag whilst this guy distracted us. That’s what living in London does for you, I guess! I had nothing to worry about. He was very friendly and gave us advice on a few things to see (mostly temples with various images of Buddha) and said that we must come and see him the next day as he worked at the Royal Palace. This we resolved to do; Julie had been keen on seeing it anyway.
 
The chap (I have forgotten his name) hailed a tuk-tuk for us, telling us we should always make sure we pay tuk-tuk drivers the Thai price, not the tourist price. He haggled the price of a small tour down for us and left us in the hands of a very keen, very nimble, but not so very good at English, tuk-tuk driver.  We learned the term "kop-um-cap" (or, for ladies, "kop-um-ka") for thank you from this guy. This doesn’t seem to match the guide book, but it didn’t draw any strange looks as we used it for the rest of our time in Thailand.
 
Tuk-tuks are named so because of the sound their engines make. They look like motorbikes that have had a roof and half a small sofa welded on to them. Tourists (more often than not) sit on the sofa in the back and pray. Our driver zipped so close to other cars that we didn’t dare cling to the frame in case our fingers got torn off. What tuk-tuks have going for them is their manoeuvrability. They can take small, half blocked side roads; leap frog queues of cars by driving into oncoming traffic (it moves out the way); cut through car parks. In short, they get places quicker. If your destination isn’t served by the Sky Train, the Chao Phraya ferry or the metro, then these are your quickest alternatives.
 
We were taken to see the biggest buddha, the oldest buddha, the luckiest buddha… There are a lot of buddhas. Some are in temples, others are outdoors. The biggest buddha, for instance, was outdoors and required us to stand half a field away to get it all in a photo. It was at this one that our driver purchased some gold leaf and helped us stick some to our foreheads ‘for good luck’.
 
Our tour was to end, as far as we understood, in a suit factory where it was the last day of a sale. We concluded that ‘factory’ must have been a translation of whatever the Thai is for ‘tailors’, as there didn’t appear to be any sweatshops anywhere close. We didn’t know to which tailor the driver thought he was taking us, but in the last of the temples another friendly Thai guy recommended to us a shop called ‘Voglee’, so we went there. I was measured up for a couple of suits and a winter coat. It was very strange looking through those catalogues of warm Europeans in dressed for a chilly winter whilst I was dressed in t-shirt, shorts and sandals.  We left Voglee with an arrangement to come back for a fitting the next day.
 
We had an adrenaline surge of a tuk-tuk ride through rush hour traffic to get back to the hotel, with the driver cheekily apologising to the police that seemed to be manning junctions. Once back at the hotel, we decided to have another go at finding this rooftop restaurant. I made a more concerted effort to check through my phone for the email Matt had sent me with the name of the restaurant. It turned out to be named ‘Vertigo’ in a hotel called ‘Banyon Tree’, and was only about 2km from the Shangri-La. We took the Sky Train; far easier than taxi.
 
The restaurant was stunning, sitting on top of the 62nd floor. It was quite a humid evening, but a breeze on the rooftop made it easily bearable. We were given a table on a raised area with an unobstructed, panoramic view. The menu was excellent; we ordered à la carte. During the course of the meal a storm started brewing in a tiny portion of the sky, but soon started to head our way.
 
At that point I received a text message from my mother asking if we were okay. Why wouldn’t I be, I thought. Puzzled, I responded to say that we were watching a storm head our way whilst eating at a rooftop restaurant, but otherwise we were fine. I asked why she was worried. The return text message was when we learned that at some point during our dinner there had been a military coup in Bangkok.
 
We’d finished our main course as the winds picked up and at the first spots of rain we moved inside to the floor below and shared a delicious freshly baked cheese cake for desert. As coups go, this one was rather relaxing.
 
We had a drink in a bar a little further down the building and used the hotel wi-fi to check out the news on my phone. The BBC told us that tanks had rolled in to surround government house and the offices had been occupied. Thai television was showing songs that were supposed to evoke memories of previous successful revolutions and coups. (We saw some of this later: The songs were accompanied by subtitles and a Disney style ball bouncing atop the words to allow you to sing along.)
 
We took a cab back that night, too late for the Sky Train and unwilling to try out public transport during a coup anyway.
 
20 Sep
The Royal Palace turned out to be closed due to the coup, but we decided to try and see if Jim Thompson’s house was open.
 
Jim Thompson was (or is?) an American who had a large part in re-establishing Bangkok’s tradition of silk weaving. This had declined during World War II. He restored a series of houses to traditional Thai-style and lived there for twenty years from 1946. He disappeared whilst walking in Pahang, Malaysia in 1967, and is assumed dead. (A fairly safe assumption as he’d be 100 years old by now anyway.) His home has become a museum both for its traditional architecture due to the large number and importance of the pieces of art he had collected there. The gardens, too, were very impressive: Not large, but well kept and packed full of all sorts of native plants and fish.
 
We attempted to get back to Voglee for my fitting, via another tuk-tuk. Unfortunately the tailors was based close to all the government buildings. Twice we got as far as road blocks policed by armed soldiers. We saw an armoured vehicle (not quite a tank) and attempted to get a few pictures as the tuk-tuk swung round with the rest of the thwarted traffic. This was the only sign of the coup we saw. Nobody we spoke to seemed too worried about it. News reports indicated that most people, even in the prime minister’s supposed support base in the countryside, supported the coup. Of course these reports were in a Thai newspaper, so who knows what influence the army had over that report.
 
We decided that a good thing to do in case of a coup is find some gin and tonic and sit on your balcony to enjoy the sunset with a good book. I summoned the tailors to the hotel, and they came with a half completed suit to complete the fitting. That’s good service in my book.
 
In the evening, still not yet keen to venture into town, we ate Thai seafood at one of the Shangri-La’s four or five restaurants. We enjoyed watching some Thai dancers and eating good food. One of our waitresses tried out her English on us by engaging us in conversation about our trip and was very excited to hear we were just married. She went away and prepared a special plate of fruit for us, carved into flower shapes. Very sweet.
 
It was a pleasant last evening in Bangkok, but we looked forward to coming back again on the last day of the honeymoon once the political situation had calmed down a bit.
 
 
Categories
Personal

Wedded!

Just a quick note to inform any interested uninformed; I am married!
 
It all took place on September the 9th 2006, St. James’ Church in Poole, Dorset. Thanks to everyone who made it and I hope you had a great time. I’ve selected a few photos and added them to an album for your perusal and amusement.
 
Coming soon will be a few notes about our honeymoon travels to Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and… Cornwall.
Categories
Personal

Sky diving – indoors!

Before I start, I’d like to say that this was not a case of buying someone a present that you wanted yourself all along!
 
For Christmas I bought my mother an indoor sky diving lesson at Airkix in Milton Keynes. (Volume down before clicking that link!)
 
I was a little worried about whether or not she’d enjoy it, but she initially convinced herself it would be okay because it didn’t involve jumping off anything. The way it works is that you lean forward into a tunnel of ~100mph wind blowing through a metal grill and then adopt a ‘flying’ pose, chest down, as the wind buoys you up. Your back should be arched, legs slightly bent and arms also slightly bent in front of you with hands face down and chin up. At least, that’s the beginner’s pose. I’m sure those reading this who’ve been sky diving are laughing now at my amateur description of it all.
 
So yesterday we went down to Milton Keynes to watch mother partake of her flight. Upon watching from the viewing gallery, however, mum decided that it was, after all, just a bit too much, which is fair enough as she’s not great with heights. So I took her place. Today I’m aching all over from muscles I don’t usually employ. On my first two minute session I was bouncing off the perspex wall of the tunnel with some force, and managed to flip 360, the last 90 degrees being a helping hand from the instructor to stop me plunging onto the metal grill with some force. On my second session I seemed to muster more control and discovered that relaxing really does help you stabilize.
 
I’d love to do it again, but I have to save my money for now, not least to sort out a replacement present for my mother!