Thailand, 2011

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My Third Time In Thailand

In January 2011, I returned once again to Thailand. As before I flew into Bangkok and booked a room in Chinatown, my favourite neighbourhood in the city.

My main objective on this trip was to visit Laos. Back in 2008 I had spent a hurried few days in southern Laos. I had cut through that part of the country on my way from Vietnam back to Thailand. Unfortunately I had little time to spend in Laos because my return date back home from Bangkok was fast approaching .

Before journeying on to Laos I took a day trip from Bangkok to Lopburi, Thailand. Lopburi is famous for being a town where monkeys and people coexist peacefully together. Most of the time anyway.

The monkeys of Lopburi belong to a species known as Crab-Eating Macaques. They have free reign over the city. Not only is their presence just tolerated, they are regularly fed by the local people . In fact, since 1989 there has been an annual Monkey Festival held in November in honour of the simian residents of Lopburi. A huge, elaborate feast is laid out for them. In addition to tons of fresh fruit, cakes and ice cream, sticky rice and other treats are set out for the macaques to help themselves to. As the macaques throw themselves on the piles of succulent treats, mayhem ensues. They gorge themselves with abandon. They often also resort to food fights with each other. Imagine the mess they must create. I wish I had been in Lopburi to witness the Monkey Festival.

Monkeys have an honourary place in Thai culture because they are associated with the brave deeds attributed to the monkey-headed Hindu god Hanuman. Because of this, they are thought to bring good luck. This helps to explain why macaques get the red carpet treatment in Lopburi.

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Shanghai, 2011

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Shanghai: China’s Hyperkinetic Mega City

 

Before the banking crisis of 2008 a quarter of all the construction cranes in the world were in use in Shanghai. The rapidity of growth in Shanghai has been breath-taking. The Shanghai guidebook I used as a reference to the city was 3 years old in 2011, the year I visited. Near the back of that book was a map of the Shanghai subway system showing 6 different subway lines. By the time I arrived there were 13 subway lines!

With a population of over 20 million, Shanghai is a megalopolis. It’s galloping growth has been largely fueled by the throngs of country dwellers pouring in to flee the poverty of the countryside.

If you arrive in Shanghai via Pudong International Airport you have the option of journeying to the center of the city by taking the Maglev train in. This should not be missed.

The Maglev is the fastest train in the world. It can top out at 430 km/hour (270 miles/hour). Each car has a digital speedometer displayed overhead that allows passengers to know the speed the train is going. The ride is quite smooth and reasonably quiet until another train going the opposite direction passes by. Oncoming trains announce themselves with a loud bang as air is rapidly compressed between the sides of the passing trains. This lasts only a fraction of a second because of the incredible speed the trains are moving past each other. It’s quite a jolt when it happens to you the first time.

Maglev is short for “magnetic levitation”. The smoothness of the ride is due to the fact that the train travels along a guideway that uses magnetic forces that provide lift as well as propulsion. Friction is greatly reduced this way.

The Maglev travels 30.5 km from the airport to the outskirts of central Pudong in only 8 minutes. It’s like an allegory for the breakneck pace of development in Shanghai in recent decades.

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Detroit, 2010

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Detroit: Blighted But Also Blessed

My parents used to live close to Detroit on the Canadian side of the border in a town called Sarnia. That’s not where I grew up. It’s just where my parents retired to.

On one of my annual visits to see my parents I thought it would be a good idea to travel the short distance to Detroit and spend a few days there. Why not? It was just over the horizon after all. I booked a hotel online and headed across the border. This was on a Sunday in March, 2010.

After I was checked into my hotel I grabbed my camera bag and went out to have a look around. Downtown Detroit was deserted. I saw more cars than people, and I didn’t see many cars. I could walk for blocks without seeing any sign of life. Many of the buildings were shuttered and desolate. Even many of the stores that appeared to be still in business were closed.

I walked over to Woodward Avenue, the main north-south roadway. The street was mostly desolate but I saw a restaurant and bar called the Hockey Town Cafe that was open and I could see some people inside. Next door was a grand old theatre called the Fox. It was quite imposing and obviously still in operation. Even here though it was largely barren of other people. The occasional car or pedestrian would pass. Of the few people on the street some appeared to be homeless.

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Thailand, 2009

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Thailand Enticed Me Back For Another Visit

My first visit to Thailand was during the winter of 2008. The second visit was in September, 2009. I had believed that it wouldn’t be much hotter in late summer than it was in the Thai winter because it had been so scorching then. That assumption was incorrect. Every photo of me from that second Thai outing shows me drenched in sweat. Very becoming. Temperatures often exceeded 40 degrees Celsius.

Bangkok was especially torrid and muggy. The humidity was ghastly. I had never appreciated air condition so much before.

September also falls within the rainy season in Thailand. When it did rain – which it did often – it was came pounding down in torrents. You don’t experience rainfall like that outside of the tropics. Before long though the rain would stop and it would get sunny again. Then I’d start sweating again.

One of the drawbacks of being an avid photographer is being cursed with a stubborn insistence on lugging around a lot of camera gear where ever you go. No little compact shooter or smart phone will do. When I find myself traveling in a very hot place I sometimes can’t help but feel like a pack animal after carrying my camera kit around in the blistering heat for a while. But there have been occasions when I did leave my gear behind and ended up missing opportunities for getting some good photos. One night in Saigon I was sitting at an outdoor table at a restaurant and some young Vietnamese boys put on a fire-eating show on the street to wheedle some tips from the patrons. They were quite fearless and put on quite a spectacle They could spew flames out of their mouths and stick burning wands down their throats without harming themselves at all. Despite their young age they were clearly comfortable with what they were doing. It was quite electrifying to see. What fantastic images I could have captured with my camera if I had it with me.

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Beijing, 2009

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Beijing: Very Modern and Very Ancient All at Once

Beijing is a huge city with nearly 12 million inhabitants. However because of it’s extensive and modern subway system it’s easy, and affordable, to get to most places of interest easily and quickly. It’s also helpful that all the street and traffic signs are in English as well as Chinese.

I made a stop over here on the way to, and coming back from, Thailand. I had never been to Beijing before but having been in a number of cities in the developing world I arrived here with certain expectations about what I would encounter. I had assumed that the city would be dirty. Carefree littering is a hallmark of life in the third world. But Beijing was not dirty at all. Well, the air was definitely not clean. I also thought that street-food carts would be virtually everywhere. There are almost none in Beijing. The only ones I saw were at the Donghuamen Yeshi Night Market near Wangfujing Road, the place to go for high end boutiques and designer labels (not my thing at all, I went for the food). I was also surprised by how much green space there is in the city. Behai Lake and Houhai Lake for example are surrounded by expansive, leafy grounds that provide a soothing escape from the scramble of the metropolis. The grounds of these parks are very well maintained and orderly, and no, there’s no litter in sight.

I was very impressed by some of the modern architecture there. Some of it is really stunning. The CCTV building is very eye catching since it looks like it shouldn’t be able to avoid toppling over. The train station in Terminal 3 of the Capital City airport is one of the most appealing modern constructions I’ve ever seen. It has a massive vaulted ceiling that’s mostly clear glass. The floor of the station is polished stone so it reflects the light coming through the ceiling.

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