All 2 entries tagged Ubon

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January 26, 2008

In and around Ubon Ratchathani

On Thursday our driver came to pick up our party (Mark, Opp, Peng and me) at 9am from our nice little guest house in Warin Chamrap. My Thai sister, Joob Jang, joined us too. We got some takeaway fried rice to eat on the bus and then we were off to pick Luangpor and Tahn Manapo from Wat Pah Nanachat. Our destination for the day, Khao Phra Wiharn, is a Khymer temple on the top of a mountain on the border between Thailand and Cambodia. The mountain belongs to Cambodia, since the World Court deemed it so in 1962, but it is not directly accessible from Cambodia. The only access is from Thailand because of the 600m shear rock face that connects the mountain with the rest of Cambodia. The isolation means that you do not need a passport or visa to visit – although you do need to pay of course! At the border crossing the Cambodians are keen to make you aware of your location. There are Cambodian flags everywhere, almost as many as there are landmine signs!

You know you are in Cambodia anyway as this place has a very different feel about it. There are sellers hassling to take photos or offering postcards of Pol Pot, children as young as five out begging for money, and girls following you around trying to be guides. Even the monks were subjected to locals trying to sell them cigerettes! Despite this, the temple ruins on the long up the mountain are extremely impressive. There are three levels, and from from the first it was clear who would reach the top first. By the time we had begun the first few steps, Luangpor was already reaching the top of the first level, and soon he had disappeared out of sight. We took our time, snapping some shots of the ruins on the way. At one of the levels there is an old machine gun which is cunningly aimed at Thailand. The Cambodians must be fairly proud of this place given that according to the geology of the area it would make more sense to be part of Thailand.

At the top of the mountain there are some large rocks after which there is just a shear drop. There are no barriers or fences, you can peer over at Cambodia depending on how brave you are. It would be nice to jump down into Cambodia and see what it is like – I suspect that it might make Isahn look rich and prosperous by comparison.

After our trip out with the monks we went to have a big dinner as we were starving from going without food since breakfast. (You have to be quite imaginative to find eating opportunities when out with monks!) Then we went back to the Spa for another massage to end our exciting day.

Friday started the same as the previous day, eating breakfast in our rented minibus (with driver!) on the way to pick up the monks. The four of us were all wearing football shirts that we had bought for just over £1 – we looked a right bunch of hippies! Luangpor decided we should visit Wat Keuan, a temple he stayed at 35 years ago. The temple is in a large piece of forest on a peninsular that sticks out into Sirintorn Dam in the province of Ubon Ratchathani. When Luangpor was a resident monk there was no road up to the temple, and every morning he walked a couple of hours on almsround to collect his one meal of the day. Nowadays there is a road up to the temple gate, and we were even able to drive a fair way into the temple grounds before we continued on foot. Luangpor told us that the temple is run-down compared to his day, many of the kutis look abandoned and the once beautiful wooden sala building is completely neglected. We walked along a path covered with leaves until it disappeared and then it was up to Luangpor to forge a path through the forest until we came to an opening. It was the place we were looking for, the end of the peninsular where many large overhanging rocks suggested a wealth of photographic opportunities. I climbed on all the rocks and then paddled in the water to get to a further rock sticking out of the water.

We stayed in this idyllic corner of the temple for quite a while before we once again forged a way through the trees to get back to the path. It was a magical place – one of the many unique experiences I have been lucky enough to enjoy during this trip. I think I am unlikely to find this place again – a very remote and ‘unseen’ part of Thailand.

In the evening we sent Opp and Peng to the airport to catch a plane back to Bangkok, so they could do some intense shopping before Peng left for China the following day. This meant that on Saturday there was only Mark and I to accompany the monks on another trip. We roughed it in the back of a pick-up smelling of fish to get to Wat Pah Nanachat. The driver took us on a very long and convoluted route to the temple, which after saying hello to several of his friends in different shops and villages, I realised was probably to show off that he had a couple of farang with him. At the temple we met Peter who would take us all to visit Luangpor’s friend Ajahn Dang. I have heard many stories about Ajahn Dang from Luangpor, so it was good to meet him at last.

Afterwards we went back to Peter’s house where we were served proper English tea in the best fine bone china. Not the sort of thing you expect in a small village in one of the remotest parts of Thailand. In the evening I managed to persuade Joob Jang to let me have a go at riding her motorcycle. I soon got the hang of speeding through the city later at night with no helmet or license. Mark found it quite amusing that Joob’s helmet was kept in the front basket unused, but the next day I realised that you actually need your helmet when the sun comes out to stop your face from getting too tanned!

On Sunday morning I set off with Joob at 7am to visit her family’s house about 40km outside the city. This was quite a distance to travel by motorcycle, but by the time we got there I was much more confident at driving! We had a great breakfast with the family and then we all set to work on digging the ground around the house to prepare for possible flooding during the rainy season. This was hard work in the heat, even if it was only 10am in the morning. What a great contrast in living between Bangkok and Ubon! I hope all those lucky city dwellers get to experience the diversity in their own country as I have done.

After the digging we rode around the village on a motorcycle with some of the children following behind on bicycles. We went to the temple to pay our respects at each of the Buddha images, then it was back to the house for lunch before the long motorcycle journey back to the city where I met a relieved Mark (who had survived getting to the temple and back on his own) at the airport ready to return to Bangkok.

Wat Nong Pah Pong

(Quick note: I am back from Thailand and yesterday I passed my viva. So now back to my adventure…)

I was pretty lively at 4am because I had a really good sleep in the wardrobe (possibly my favourite room in the house). I woke up Mark, who looked slightly less pale than the day before, and Peng, and our last minute recruit Op (Pie’s cousin). The four of us got a taxi to the airport only to find out on arrival that our flight had been changed from 6am to 7am. So I could have spent another glorious 60 minutes in the wardrobe! Instead we had to suffer an unnecessary extra hour in the freezing cold departure lounge at Don Muang. I am horrified by the amount of buildings in Bangkok that insist on replicating the climate of a British winter.

When we finally got on the plane I think I must have been asleep before take-off. I remember waking up thinking we must be still stationary on the runway at Bangkok, when actually we were coming into land at Ubon. At the airport a driver was waiting for us with a comfortable minivan – our transport for the next few days. We found our hotel and met Joob Jang (my little sister in Ubon), then drove out into the countryside to a small village to pick up the rest of my family! Next stop was Wat Pah Nanachat where Luangpor and Tahn Manapo were staying. We had time for lunch just outside the temple, and at a local shop selling wooden stuff I bought a walking stick to offer to Luangpor. (This, I thought, might be useful on the various walking challenges that we would be undertaking in the following days, although given the speed with which Luangpor ascended the mountain the next day it may have been easier for us to keep up without it!)

Early in the afternoon we headed over to Wat Nong Pah Pong, the temple of the Venerable Ajahn Chah who died on this day 16 years ago. Ever since his death, the 16th January has been the biggest celebration of the year with thousands of people coming from all over Thailand to pay their respects to this great forest monk. Inside and outside the temple was thronging with people, but with Luangpor onboard we were able to drive into the temple grounds and right up to the door of the main sala building. Luangpor gave us a walking tour the grounds of the temple. It was completely different to the last time I visited because at that time I only saw a handful of people. On this special occasion the forest was crammed full of tents, people camping out for days to practice meditation, listen to teachings and prepare for this the big day. Most people were wearing white, and while the streets were a constant procession of people backwards and forwards to Ajahn Chah’s chedi, there were long lines of people sat on both sides of the path – it was an impressive sight. As we walked around behind the two monks it was like watching a mexican wave (or mexican ‘wai’) because all these hundreds of people put their palms together to respect a passing monk.

At around 3pm we took up a position ready to circumambulate Ajahn Chah’s chedi. I managed to lose our group at this point, just as the procession began. The monks set off first, I saw Luangpor right near the front with the most senior monks, there there was a long line of monks that seem to go on forever (I have never seen so many in one place!). The monks were followed by the nuns, of which there seemed to be many more as it took ten minutes at least for them all to pass. After a while it was difficult to know whether they were nuns or laypeople as nearly everyone was wearing white. I saw a farang that must have been Mark heading off into the distance at one point, and then it must have been another 5 minutes until the group I was in started to move forward. Walking along the long road towards the chedi all I could see was thousands of heads in front of me each with a flower, a candle and incense. I turned around to realise it was exactly the same behind me – there thousands and thousands! It was supposed to be a walk around the chedi so I thought, but when I asked someone they said there were too many people. It took quite a long time for all the monks, nuns and laypeople in front of us to pay their respects at the chedi, but slowly we inched closer and eventually we were able to place our flowers, candles and incense on the huge pile that had formed a ring around the chedi. As I walked back I got chatting with some locals of the young female variety – as you do – and soon after I bumped into my group who were not at all surprised to find that I have found some other company.

After paying our respects at the chedi, in true Thai style we headed for the food area which I had foolishly not noticed on our drive into the monastery. The first stall we visited was giving away free food, so I was soon in there getting myself some snacks. The next stall we went to was also giving away food. As I got further in I discovered this whole area of the temple was set up with stalls just giving food for free! And many were actively encouraging you to eat their food. Mark would have been in heaven! Instead, he was sleeping in the car – his stomach and body not yet recovered from the spicy assault it had received two days previous. We did our best to eat plenty for him, and on our way back we got him some bread (about the only type of food he dared to eat for a couple of days).

I was amazed by the generousity of the people on this day. I am sure many of them have very little, but here they were giving as much as they possibly could. I felt a bit guilty that I was just enjoying it and giving nothing. As I stood around eating there must have been a dozen pick-ups pull up full of food, the closest one to us was full of sweets and crisps – it was soon surrounded by children eager to be given some treats. This was repeated time and time again, literally feeding hundreds and hundreds of people – it was crazy but beautiful at the same time.

After sending Luangpor back to Wat Pah Nanachat and the family back home, we decided what we needed after a long day was a massage, and so thats where our diligent driver dropped us. The four of us were getting nicely relaxed in our private massage room when I started talking. The masseuses were soon in fits of laughter at my attempts to learn some phrases in north-eastern dialect. I think the others were not enjoying this disturbance, but it is quite addictive when whatever you say makes people laugh. I later found out that the reason for this amusements was probably that I did not understand very well what I was saying! When we left the spa and I practiced my Isahn language on a pretty girl in Seven Eleven, I found that my new words provoked a shocked reaction. It took several days for me to realise that what I thought was ‘how are you?’ might actually be a very impolite way of saying something like ‘do you feel good?’ – which, apparently, is not the short of question you put to girls in Seven Eleven!

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Jackie Kennedy
"I want to live my life, not record it."


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