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Monday, October 31, 2005


Australian cultural lesson: Melbourne Cup

If readers of this blog have arrived in Australia in the last 12 months they may wonder what is going on tomorrow, Tuesday November 1.

It is the Melbourne Cup, Australia's most popular horse race and perhaps the biggest cultural event on the Australian calendar. The whole country stops for an unofficial holiday on the first Tuesday in November every year. The conscientious probably work in the morning but very little is done in the afternoon—except by bookmakers and perhaps caterers.

Personally, I gave up following horse races over 30 years ago. And to be fair most Australians don't follow them at other times. But it seems that this is the one day when people like me are in an extreme minority. Still I live life as I see it and I don't feel the need to change just because it's what everyone else does.

So, those who are new to Australia, you have a choice. If you want to immerse yourself in Australian culture, buy yourself a newspaper, use a pin to pick a horse and place your bet. Alternatively buy a ticket in the office sweep. There is one in just about every workplace in Australia. You might win a few dollars. But if you don't at least you can gather around the TV set with the rest of your work mates and cheer your horse on.

Alternatively, if you think there's more to life than this you can be like me and do your own thing.

Friday, October 28, 2005


Beware they are dangerous

One day Normand was flying high in storytelling mode. I asked if he had ever been to Turkey and what were the people like.

'We were in a small town and the people were very friendly and hospitable. The took care of us in every way possible. If I ever thanked someone for their kindness he would invariably say, "It is my duty."

'We had a tent with us. After some days we decided we would like to go camping in the mountains. "No. You shouldn't go there."

' "Why not?" I asked.

' "There are gypsies there. They are dangerous."

' Well, we went up to the mountains anyway and pitched out tent. After some time we saw a figure approaching. The man would peer out from behind bushes trying to see what we were doing. He came closer and closer and eventually we were able to beckon to him to come and talk to us.

'He was very friendly and after some time he invited us to the gypsy camp. Over several days Ursula and I spent much time around the gypsy campfire, talking, singing, telling stories and enjoying the hospitality of our new friends. At night we would return to our tent.

'Eventually it was time to go and our new friends asked where we were heading. We pointed to the town.

' "No, no. Don't go there. Those people are dangerous." '

Wednesday, October 26, 2005


Heart karma

In Melaka, Chinatown and Little India are separated by the Melaka River. There is one street in Chinatown, close to the river, where a few shop-houses are inhabited by people of Indian origin.

Earlier this year I was walking along this street when I noticed there was a grocery shop that hadn't been there last year. I wanted to buy some nuts so I wandered in to enquire. The proprietors were very friendly and we started chatting. After I left (with the nuts) I had walked past a few more houses when I heard a voice calling me.

The proprietor of the shop I had just left beckoned me to return. When I did he asked if I would like to come to dinner on Sunday. He said they were having another couple of Westerners and perhaps I would like to meet them. I agreed.

On Sunday at Ravi's house I met Normand and Ursula as well as all of Ravi and Vasantha's children. I have written about Ravi and Vasantha's family in earlier blogs. Now I would like to concentrate on Normand and Ursula who have become very dear friends.

They are of about my age and live a similar lifestyle. That is, they are retired and spend most of their time travelling. They have seen much more of the world than I have. Normand is a natural and lively storyteller and would often engage me with fascinating stories about their travels.

While Normand's spiritual heart is both beautiful and healthy his physical heart is not so strong. One day in Melaka he and Ursula were outside the Makota Medical Centre when Normand had a heart attack. He was admitted straight into the hospital and given heart surgery.

A few months later he is healthy and he and Ursula have now moved on from Melaka. He speaks very highly of the standard of care he was given at the Makota Medical Centre. The treatment cost him about $10,000. He estimates it would have been four times that much if he had been home in Canada at the time of his heart attack. He did not have insurance to cover the operation

I related this story to a friend in Australia recently who had asked about medical treatment in Asia. My friend then said, 'What if he had been in a village at the time of the attack?' I believe it was significant that Normand had the heart attack outside the hospital. The weakness in his heart is genetic he was stuck with it. But somehow, I believe, his karma had led him to be in the best place for him to have the heart attack. Normand is a truly beautiful human being. He deserves the best and that was what he got.

Monday, October 24, 2005


Return to Oz

It had been my intention, after my three months in Thailand had come to an end, to move on to Cambodia. However I have already, at the time of writing, returned to Australia for family reasons.

I intend to continue to blog stories that I recollect from my time in Asia; comments on happenings in Asia; comparisons between Western and Asian lifestyles and descriptions of life in Australia that I feel might be of interest to my Asian friends. I hope you'll return.

The other evening on TV in Australia, Getaway showed five minutes of Cambodia. Tears came to my eyes. My heart is still in Asia. I will return. At the moment I am not sure when.

Sunday, October 23, 2005


Barbecued cat

I was having lunch with a group of students and they were asking me which of the Isaan delicacies I had eaten. Most of the group turned their nose up at some of the dishes. They pointed out that it was people from the Sakhon Nakhon area who would eat dishes such as dog that most others would reject. One of the group was from that area. They asked if she had eaten rat. She simply shrugged her shoulders as if to say 'so what'.

I asked 'What about cat?' No, they all agreed—even the lady from Sakhon Nakhon—that was bad luck. So now I understand why I got such a strong reaction when I played a little game a couple of years back.

Ton and Tar are two young men who ran the Nom Chaang (Elephant Milk) Cafe. They adopted me as a surrogate father figure and I often spent my evenings in their cafe. On one side of the cafe was a restaurant and on the other was a barbecue chicken place. These establishments all had roofs but were open at the sides. Dogs, cats, toads and other animals would wander through as they wished. There was one cat that used to hang around quite a lot pestering customers and they would complain about it being a nuisance.

One night I said, 'I can get rid of the cat for you.' I picked it up and headed for the chicken barbecue. I held it over the barbecue and said 'Meaw yang' (barbecued cat).

'No,' they all called. 'You can't do that'.

'Why not? Isaan people eat dog. Why not cat?'

One waitress was quite distressed. 'Barp. Barp.' (Bad karma) she called.

Of course I was only joking and returned the cat unharmed. But she thought I was serious and I feel she was never quite sure about me after that.

Saturday, October 22, 2005



Another Westerner visiting Mahasarakham told me he had seen snakes for sale in the local market. I've never heard of Isaan people eating snakes. I'm not saying they don't. Except perhaps for cat, they seem to eat just about anything that isn't poisonous. However, I have visited the Mahasarakham market many times both in its current venue and the temporary venue before this one was rebuilt. I have never seen a snake in the market.

What I do see are these things here. Perhaps my friend mistook them for snakes. But just in case it was me making a mistake I asked the vendor, 'Nee ngoo mai khap?' (Are these snakes?)

'Mai ngoo,' (Not snakes) she answered. 'Bpen pla li.' Now I'm not sure what the 'li' part of that sentence is but I understand 'pla' which is 'fish'. So I'm sure these are eels and not snakes. She picked up the biggest to show me more closely. Yes, I'm sure it's not a snake.

When I was in Laos my guide book told of a market in Vientiane where snakes are sold. I went there but saw none. Still if Laos people eat snake then I assume that some Isaan people do too as many of them have originally come from Laos.

If given the opportunity I may one day eat pla li. And as for ngoo? Well, why not?

Thursday, October 20, 2005


Pillars and lingas

When I talked to my friends in Mahasarakham about my visits to the local wats, there was one that they felt I should not have missed as it is very old and interesting. So they took me there.

While we were wandering around the grounds we met an elderly monk who showed us around, including showing us this storehouse of some of their old treasures. Among the treasures my friends could not help but notice the magnificent Shiva linga that you can see in this picture.

This stirred a good deal of discussion which continued in the car after we left the temple. My friends, all women, seemed quite at ease calling the linga by its real name. Therefore, I was a little confused and said, 'Why do you refer to the city pillar as a pillar? Why not call it a linga?'

Well, according to my friends, it's not. This was my misunderstanding. The pillar represents a part of a building not a male organ. Somehow I had come to believe that the city pillar was some sort of fertility symbol.

'No,' one of my friends explained, 'when I come to a city I would pay my respects to the city pillar and ask the spirit of the city to take care of me and protect me while I am in this city.'

OK, so now I understand. (I think.)

One of the things that I have observed during my time in Mahasarakham over the years is that the city pillar appears to attract more reverence than the city Buddha image which is just down the road. And this among people who would mostly claim to be Buddhist.

If I catch a sorngtheaw down the street where both monuments are found about half the occupants will usually wai (put hands together and bow) to the city Buddha image. When the minibus passes the city pillar about 90% of the passengers will wai. Also cars are constantly tooting their horns as they pass. When I visited the pillar people were waiting for their turn to make offerings.

As I said these people are predominantly Buddhist however they also acknowledge both Hindu and animist beliefs which the Shiva linga and city pillar are more representative of.

If you'd like to see pictures of the city pillar, they are on my main photo page. Click the link in the sidebar. Pictures of the city Buddha image coming to the same page soon.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005


Allergies and delicacies

I recently had dinner with friends who teach in the Department of Technology at Mahasarakham University. As often happens when ordering food the subject turns to my allergies. A food technologist pointed out that grasshoppers and crickets contain the same allergens as crabs and prawns. So it looks like I've got to give up eating them now.

Actually I've only eaten one cricket. I did that in Laos. I wasn't all that impressed as the strongest flavour seemed to be that of the oil it was cooked in. Someone once gave me a large fried ant to try and the strongest flavour of that was the salt. I don't think I'll mind giving up grasshoppers and crickets.

But my friends were quite impressed that this farang had actually eaten such local delicacies. 'Have you eaten frog?' they asked.

'No but I would try it.'

No sooner said and a frog dish was ordered on my behalf. Once again I was not that impressed. They insisted that it tasted like chicken but if you didn't tell me what it was and asked me what I thought, I would have said fish. I suspect it had been deep fried in the same oil as they use for fish and the batter had taken on the flavour. In fact there was more batter than meat.

The conversation went on. 'Have you eaten lat?'

'No, I have not eaten rat and I don't intend to.'

If you'd like to see pictures of more delicacies enjoyed by Isaan people, follow the Wild things link on the sidebar.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005



Recently I spent an afternoon riding my bicycle around Mahasarakham taking photos of some of the local temples. At one I got chatting to a monk and some of the novices led me to interesting things to photograph. A man turned up selling talismans. The novices were greatly interested in these. Some brought out their own collections to compare. They had a little money and one or two were buying. Most of the talismans were Buddha images or perhaps showed a monk who was reputed to have attained great powers. I looked closely at them in case there was an anorexic Buddha among them. There wasn't. I asked the monk if they were to be had. He told me they were very rare.

One caught my eye. As far as I could see it was a yoni—wide open. The monk saw me looking at it and said 'That one very powerful.' I asked what it did. He said, 'If you have that, many women want to be in your family.'

I thought, that's the last thing I need. I wonder if there is one that attracts women to me without them wanting to be in my family. Still I was curious and I thought there might be a story in this one. So I bought it.

When I got home and put on my glasses for another look I realised that the yoni was my illusion. It was actually two birds arranged symmetrically, perhaps kissing. The space between them formed the shape of the open yoni.

I took it to a friend to see if he knew anything about it. He didn't. He could see the two birds and guessed that it must be some sort of love symbol. If he saw the yoni he did not say anything.

So far I have not attracted any more women who want to be in my family.

Sunday, October 16, 2005


Speaking Thai

Learning another language is always challenging. For a native English speaker learning Thai can be particularly so. European languages have similar roots to English and most have something in common. There is very little of that with Thai.

Thai grammar is quite different from ours. Once you get to understand it, it is usually simpler but that initial understanding can be a challenge.

Thai uses an entirely different alphabet from ours. Some books try to teach you to speak Thai with transliterations into our Roman alphabet. That is how I started, thinking that learning the alphabet would make it harder. I believe now that I was wrong. Many Thai letters have sounds that do not translate into the Roman alphabet. The substitutions are usually a compromise.

I once had a puncture in my bicycle. I took the wheel off and set off on foot to the motorcycle repair shop. Before I left I had looked up my phrase book and written down what I needed to say to tell them 'Could you please repair my puncture.' The bike shop was about a kilometer away from my room. All the way there I repeated the sentence to myself. When I got there I repeated it out loud to blank looks from the mechanic. I had to resort to sign language which was much more efficient.

Apparently our ears are not capable of hearing many sounds if we are not subjected to them in the early years of our lives. I can listen to a friend say something in Thai. I repeat what I think I am hearing but always I get laughs. If I get it right somehow, it is just by chance. I am rarely able to repeat it.

Still, I am determined to improve my Thai speaking skills. I enjoy my Thai friendships but there are many more people I could get to know if I could speak their language rather than expecting them to speak mine. Learning to speak Thai better is now one of my priorities.


Healthy profits

In a recent issue of the Bangkok Post it was reported that the US has suggested that Thai bans on tobacco advertising should be revoked to protect American investors.

Surely this is not too great a sacrifice for Thai people to make. Thai people must understand that the profits of American investors are more important than the health of Thai people. Nothing in the world can be more important than the profits of American investors. Is this difficult to understand? Now come on Thailand, you can't have everything. Give up your good health, encourage more smoking so that Americans can become richer.

Friday, October 14, 2005


Lunch in Bangkok

I arrived back in Bangkok on Sunday. I love it here in this country. One thing I notice—it is hot! Mid-thirties each day. It is good to be back with Ead and Tong. I bought a SIM card for my phone and slowly I am catching up with everyone.

When I arrived Ead and Tong asked what I wanted for lunch. I said I had not eaten gai yang (BBQ chicken) or khao neow (sticky rice) for five months so we went to an Isaan restaurant. If you arrived here as a tourist, you wouldn't find this place. It's way out in the suburbs. The menus are not in English and I doubt if the staff speak it either.

We didn't try all they had to offer—none of the amphibians, none of the grubs that I'm told are found in bamboo, nor did we have the ant eggs. But we did have a great lunch. We got about half a chicken, a whole fish, khao neow, somtam Thai (not somtam Isaan with the fermented raw fish), and several plates of vegetables including wild ones that are not found in Australia. No wonder Thai people in Australia miss Thailand. We had a great feast. And the bill for three of us came to under $A11.

I'm glad to be back.


Anorexic Buddha

During the Buddha's search for enlightenment he tried just about every method going at the time. One of these was severe deprivation. At times Theravada Buddhists create Buddha images showing him looking extremely thin from his long-term fasting.

A friend of mine in Australia recently acquired such a Buddha image. I told him that such things were not uncommon in south-east Asia. 'Good,' he said.'Get me another.' Since returning to Asia I have been searching.

Melaka has an abundance of antique shops catering to tourists. They have Buddha images both Theravada and Mahayana. But every one I saw looked quite robust.

I looked in several antique shops in Kuala Lumpur and found much the same.

In Penang I was staying on the edge of both Chinatown and Little India. Little India is delightful. Not having seen the real thing I can't say it is like it. Perhaps a more romantic version. There I found a store with nothing but religious icons. Not antiques, all new stuff. They had the pantheon of Hindu gods. They had many Buddhas, both Theravada and Mahayana including several of the Chinese boddhisatvas. They even had both Jesus and Mary. I thought I was in heaven just walking through this shop. But there were no emaciated Buddhas.

One evening I had my dinner in Chinatown and walking back home I found the Chinese version of the above store, only much larger. They had Buddhas from huge to small. They had other Chinese deities. They also had many Hindu gods. They had almost lifelike lotus flowers from which came the sound of chanting that sounded Theravada to me. But there was not one Theravada Buddha, only Mahayana. There seems to be a bias on the part of the proprietors.

The antique shops of Penang were no better than those in Melaka, so the search goes on. Unfortunately I don't see a lot of point in searching now that I am here in Thailand. It is illegal to export Buddha images from Thailand and I would hate to have Buddha seized by the authorities.

I trust my friend's present Buddha image is not lonely.

Monday, October 10, 2005


Slow death

The trip from Penang to Bangkok was interesting. These countries do have high speed urban transport systems at least in their capital cities. In Bangkok, KL and Singapore I have travelled on trains that are as good or better than anything I've travelled on in Oz. I'm not sure if they've got into high speed long-distance trains yet. My Butterworth-Bangkok trip was probably not as slow as I believe the long-distance trains are in Cambodia but I would certainly not call it fast. In fact, this one would stop from time to time in the middle of nowhere. I am sure there was a reason but I don't know what it was. At other times it would travel extremely slowly.

We had crossed the border into Thailand and travelled on for about half an hour when it seemed to stop for quite a long time. Eventually it started moving slowly backward. I was in the back carriage. Next the carriage was crawling with cops. They all went to the back of the carriage and were looking out of the back of the train. For what? I did not know. They were all speaking Thai—way beyond my comprehension level. And then they saw it. The train stopped and they all climbed down. I couldn't see it so I still didn't know what it was but eventually word went around. It was a body. The train had apparently hit someone and killed them. I don't know how this happened. We were in the middle of nowhere. There was no crossing. No village or town. Just bushes. There were some cattle grazing. I wondered if perhaps this person was a cowherd. But what were they doing on the track? Didn't they see the train coming? The whistle blew often enough. Didn't they hear that? I never discovered the answers. That's as much of the story as I know.

Sunday, October 09, 2005


Finding accommodation

One of the hassles when travelling (for me anyway) is turning up in a town and finding somewhere decent to stay when all I want to do is get the weight of the backpack off my back. Some people don't seem to worry about this. I remember one night in Melaka I was sitting with Soon out the front of Sama Sama Guesthouse. It was fairly late. A woman turned up in a trishaw. She had booked a room. Apparently she did not appreciate being asked to take off her shoes before she went upstairs (she was Asian!). So she walked off with her luggage. The trishaw had already gone. She was looking for budget accommodation. At that time of night she would be lucky to find anything let alone something better. But she was happy to walk off. Me, I would have found something much earlier and not been so fussy.

Saturday, October 08, 2005


Why I write

A few years ago I retired from my career as a performance storyteller and started a new life of travelling and living in south-east Asia. Two things that are important to me are friends and communication. In fact for me the two go together. To keep my friends informed of what was happening in my life I did two things: I kept a website and I wrote regular emails. I felt that between the two a record was being made of anything interesting happening in my life. One day one of my friends emailed me and said 'I hope you're keeping a diary of all your adventures.'

No, I wasn't. I thought all those emails were a form of diary. Don't you keep them on file?

But not everyone saves every email and files get lost. My own files had disappeared twice with a stolen computer and crashed hard drive. Among all my friends perhaps there were bits and pieces of a collection of my 'adventures' but nowhere was there a complete record.

After that I added a blog page to the above website. It included my 'adventures' and also anything else that was on my mind. I had kept a regular journal over a period of 15 years so writing comes fairly easily to me. It has also become a way for me to work through issues that confront me.

When that website reached capacity I had to ask myself should I delete old pages and replace them with new ones. I decided rather, to keep my blog on an external website. That blog has for some time now been kept at Spymac. About a month ago Spymac embarked on a process of reinventing itself. On the last day of August they announced that the new Spymac would be launched on the first of September. Here it is October and we are still waiting for most of the features to reappear. I have no complaints about Spymac. It is a free service and you get what you pay for. Perhaps if you go there you will soon be able to read some of my recent blogs.

I've decided not to wait any longer for them to get their act together. I have a need to express myself. I've started my blog again here.

Apart from writing to keep my friends informed and keeping a record of my 'adventures' I see my blog as my way of making sense of the world. It is not my goal to change the world. I have more questions than answers. Change is one of the conditions of existence. It is going to happen anyway. Whether the world changes for better or worse depends, I believe, on our motivation.

The conditions of existence also include suffering and unsatisfactoriness. If we are to reduce these then our motivation for change must always be for the greater good rather than self interest. Unfortunately much of the motivation I am seeing in the world is for the latter reason.

If through reading my blog one or two people are motivated to rethink their goals perhaps that is a good thing. However I offer no easy answers. I don't believe there are any.

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