Monday, 22 October 2012

Whitewater Rafting in Pai

Out on the water, deep in the jungle ... but just don't expect peace and quiet when you're rafting in Pai, writes guest blogger John Borthwick!

First we hear them, then we see them. As our raft bounces down the stairs of a river rapid in northern Thailand, the following raft starts shrieking with terrified delight. And they’re still on flat water. Noi, Cherry and their Bangkok office pals are at large, hooting all the way from Pai to Mae Hong Son.

Our put-in point on the Nam Khong River is well past Pai, west of Chiang Mai. Ahead of is a day and a half, 45-kilometre journey. With six passengers per raft and a Thai boatman, we drift down a water alley colonnaded by giant bamboo, mango and teak. Silence is a concept admired in the abstract by Buddhist Thais, but in practice it is much less sanuk – fun – than making noise, lots of it. So we stroke and holler through both rapids and calms.

The water is clear and warm. Which is good because water fights with other rafts are always part of rafting. We drip dry, only to be drenched again in the rapids. The thrill is amplified for some of the Thais by knowing that they can’t swim. There are 15 rapids on our run but as this is January and the rapids are moderate. In September they were raging.

Come late afternoon we stop at a jungle camp to pass the night. We’re deep in the Lum Nam Pai National Park but on the bank there’s a sheltered sleeping platform with bedding and mosquito nets. Stoves are lit, pots simmer and soon there’s a feast. After dinner, with a million stars snagged in the trees and frogs burping in the blackness, we share that true wilderness pleasure — sitting around a campfire, yarning with friends.

Next morning we’re back into the boats, stroking through the river mists as the jungle’s stained-glass ceiling closes over us. “There’s a hot spring — pull the rafts in,” says our guide, Pu. We hop ashore and dig troughs in the sand, trapping the hot water. Soon we are wallowing in warm, muddy baths, happy as pigs-in, with me slowly turning into tom yam farang soup.

We paddle on, reaching the confluence of the Nam Khong and Nam Pai. From here, the rapids double to around one-and-a half metres. So to does the squealing from the Bangkok Ladies Boat. We dig deep now with our paddles, slamming and slewing and broadsiding. And then, mid-afternoon, we round a bend to see a building. No! Hong Son already! There are sobs of mock despair, and not just from Noi, Cherry and their crew.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Chonburi Buffalo Festival

Guest blogger John Borthwick visits one of Thailand's craziest and most colourful festivals, the Chonburi Buffalo Festival.

They’re getting set to race again at the Chonburi Buffalo Festival. That humble farm beast of burden, the water buffalo, or kwai, is about to have its brief, annual day in the Thai spotlight. The buffalo is the star of a unique event that’s held in mid-late October each year. Here you’ll see buffalo being preened and polished, watered, fed, decorated and admired like at no other time or place. That done, the buffaloes are then raced furiously against each other, being ridden like the bejeezus by skinny jockeys who somehow manages to stay perched on the thundering beasts as they tear down a 150-metre course. 

Just getting the four beasts competing in a race to point in the right direction at the starting line is a wrangling event, if not slapstick comedy, in itself. Then they’re off! Clouds of dust rise as the buffaloes stampede down the course at breakneck speed. The jockeys, riding bareback, are bounced mercilessly during the sprint, and sometimes bounced right off. The crowd goes crazy. The winning buff gets a bucket of water, but so do the losers. 

This year will be the Chonburi festival’s 141st year. It is a quintessentially Thai celebration rather than an event that’s tailored to the international tourist market. Foreigners of course are warmly welcome at this fair that also features Thai music, food stalls, handicrafts and other, non-bovine contests like hoop takraw, greased pole climbing and kite-making.

This being Thailand, naturally there are beauty contests — for both buffalo and farm girls — not to mention lots of betting. Prizes are awarded for the healthiest buffalo, the most splendidly decorated buffalo and also the most humorously decorated one. 

As well as racing, there is a parade of 13 carts that portrays the Vessantara Jataka, the story of one of Buddha's past lives. According to Buddhist tradition, the celebration is held at the time of the full moon in the 11th lunar month. This year it runs from October 16 to November 1, with the highlight being October 29 — the day when more than 140 buffalo will race madly down that track, jockeys bouncing, dust churning and thousands of Thais cheering them on. 

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

In the footsteps of Buddha

I’m writing this, not from Thailand, but from India - so close, yet so far! Both countries, however, have something in common (apart from crazy traffic): they are both places of pilgrimage for those of the Buddhist faith.

The International Buddhist Tourism Conclave, held from September 29 to October 1 in Varanasi and Bodh Gaya in northern India, was attended by 133 delegates from 33 countries around the world, including a large delegation from Thailand (and a much smaller contingent from Australia - just two of us!) The conference highlighted the fact that not only is religious tourism at the very origins of travel, but it’s also a growth market as more and more people have the means to travel across borders. It also looked at ways to marry tourism with religious worship without compromising the latter, and how to improve infrastructure to make sacred sites more comfortable for tourists.

       (monks setting off on a 'peace march' from outside the Thai temple in Bodh Gaya, India)

There are 400 million Buddhists on this planet; and it’s never been easier for them to travel to venerated sites such as Lumbini in Nepal (the birthplace of Buddha), Bodh Gaya, where he found enlightenment, and Sarnath (near Varanasi) where he gave his first sermon. Every day, these sites are jam-packed with tourists - but unlike other monuments, these are not just ancient monuments made from bricks and mortar, but living, breathing places of worship, alive with the energy of those seeking guidance, peace and salvation. 

Sitting under the Bodhi tree in Bohd Gaya where Buddha found enlightenment, meditating to the sound of chanting monks, for instance, is a truly magical, compelling and soul-stirring experience, even for this non-Buddhist. I can’t begin to imagine how it must feel for devotees of the faith, to finally be walking in the footsteps of the Buddha. 

                                         (under the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya)

While the focus of the conference was definitely India-centric, the challenges set during the five day event are just as pertinent to Thailand, with its many shrines and temples which attract tourists of every faith. Thailand has some of the most beautiful and venerated Buddhist sites in the world, including Wat Pho and Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok,and Wat Phra Sri Sanphet in the ancient capital of Ayutthaya ... but like India’s sacred sites, it’s important for Thailand and the Buddhist world that these places are not loved to death, and that pilgrims don’t destroy what they’ve set out to venerate.