Saturday, February 27, 2010

Reds and golds slowly ebbing from my dreams, becoming familiar again with this heavy half-light we call day, so different from the white-hot light and black-hot dark of Thailand. Walking around here feels a bit like wading through grey soup, cold soup at that, but reconnecting with family & friends effectively reminds me how rich my life is here...

As well as wonderful real people this week brings immersion in fictional ones, with a double dose of theatre:

"After 3 hours of Shakespeare, we'll need a drink" the punter in front of me was saying as we jostled into the Tobacco Factory for A Midsummer Night's Dream. Three hours does sound a hefty slab of culture but the time melted like an entertaining dream - several of them, in fact, as overlapping casting highlighted the multiplicity of dreamers in the forest. The play's trefoil interweaving of nobles, fairies and tradesmen seems often to have one weaker thread, and in this production it was the fairies: Duke Theseus and his bride brought the same unethereal weight to their roles as Oberon and Titania, the tradesmen/attendants were awkwardly unfunny, and Puck exuded the harsh bravado of an ex-dealer turned drug advisor. But the lovers were wonderful, the girls especially vibrant and feisty: Rebecca Pownall's Helena was mesmeric - gorgeous and very funny. Top comedy marks though must go to the rude mechanicals in their set-piece performance of Pyramus and Thisbe, with an Oscar for Felix Hayes as Snout the tinker who underestimates his wall-bearing stamina. By the time the lords and ladies were dancing their finale - with a few lucky front-seated audience - we were all almost too weak with laughter to applaud. Almost, but not quite.

Exeter is a long way to go for a night out, but Theatre Alibi's Ministry of Fear made even the Ilminster bypass on a Friday night worthwhile. Based on the book by Graham Greene, this edgy espionage story was visually and aurally superb and brilliantly interpreted. The set, a surreal evocation of London in the blitz, lighting, and costumes all combined to create a surreal and compelling environment for the story - as did the haunting live music, a sax & double-bass combo. There's a dark and stormy storyline too: Arthur Rowe, going about his business with nothing on his mind apart from the fact he's a murderer, is mistaken for a secret agent after incorrectly guessing the weight of the cake at a village fete. That's the straightforward bit. He becomes increasingly embroiled with various nefarious, and often hilarious, spies and counterspies; loses his memory after an explosion; falls in love with a enemy agent... oh, you get the idea. It's touring till the end of May and should collect rave reviews wherever it goes. If I had to be picky, I'd say the femme needed to be a little more fatale; eroticism would have brought a touch of missing glamour. But a great show, and a wonderful party atmosphere despite the abrupt recent announcement that Northcott Theatre has gone into administration. A timely reminder we should all support our local regional theatres - if the Northcott folds, when it puts on shows like this, who's really safe?

Looking back: out of the grey, a meeting with a co-participant on my first Skyros course sends me scurrying to the 1993 holiday album... and there we are, and here am I, smiling in Greek sunlight from what feels like another lifetime.

Looking ahead: Vampire Nights at the Alma Tavern, May 24th-29th. My play Love Bites is featured alongside a monologue by Conor McPherson - an epic privilege, and one I never dreamed of while watching his play The Seafarer at the Theatre Royal Bath exactly 3 years ago.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Final post from my Thailand stay, looking back on final few days in Chiang Mai - contrasts and surprises to the very end: Mae Ya waterfall in the National Park, on a day trip with Stephen's son Gavin and his delightful partner Joy, visiting from Taiwan... Night Market, cramming the streets with local craft... more temples, more fabulous food... and a late visit to the notorious Glass Onion bar. Massive appreciative to Stephen and Mam for their generous hospitality: mega-thanks to everyone for everything...

So I've had my last meal in Thailand for this year - sticky rice with mango, here at the airport - and will soon be boarding for the long flight home.
Setting aside the weather thing (viz: 30 degree drop in temperature), I'll enjoy seeing friends & family again, and catching up with the culture of my own little corner of the planet....
Until my next trip, anyway.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

While the UK celebrates red hearts and roses, here the flame-red decorations are for the Chinese New Year. Still, Valentine's day is a good time for a tarot reading, so off we go to an unglamourous shop on the main road which clearly relies on word of mouth and had a queue of 9 by the time we left. Mam translates as Kae has no English and among other interesting insights I find my birthdate shows I'm a monkey. Monkey energy accounts for my constant impulse to travel, apparently.
This is strawberry harvest time too, and in the hill village of Samoeng there's a strawberry fair. Here's Steve and Mam's little girl Idea, already with enough grasp of English to take the piss charmingly out of my 'farang' muggleness.

Food... I can't leave Thailand without paying my respects.

Since the start of my trip the food's been fantastic and, for this daily 33 degC sunshine, a perfect regime for me: no heavy lunch and siesta, just light breakfast and early supper. Meals here are fairly fast events: forget lingering over wine-accompanied european-style courses: everything arrives together and is swiftly consumed. Steamed rice is served individually, immediately, usually with soup - always unthickened broth - not as a starter but to moisten the meal. Other dishes are shared: typically there'll be vegetables, an omelette probably with prawns, and a large deepfried fish. Every meal looks as delicious as it tastes, an artwork of vivid colours and graceful garnish. Here's us at MK in the Chiang Mai Plaza, busy with our interactive artwork meal which arrived in the form of a small market garden and a tower of platters of teeny bits of fish. Idea and Som Chai, supervised by Mam, dropped these into a cauldron of simmering water in the middle of our table and within minutes we were sipping a sensational DIY soup.
Snacks in the market, like cones of pineapple chunks, sweetcorn, and donuts, are only a few baht; at the other end of the scale you can pay 8x as much in the elegant coffee bar of the Mandarin Oriental for a raspberry & lychee macaroon.
It's the contrasts in this land that make it so fascinating, of course, and the way that the sacred and profane coexist so closely, some might say even overlapping.
I'm aware blognotes give only superficial snapshots, while my Thailand journey - like all life's journeys - is far more than the sum of these glimpses.
Take yesterday's nature-watch: a giant Grouper fish in the aquarium at the mall - and a foot-long venomous centipede in the grass. I'm not saying Thailand is a big placid-seeming fish secretly as dangerous as the scolopendra, of course, but I do know this country is more complex & fascinating than merely a Land of Smiles.

And finally: For readers who've never had a thai massage in a non-tourist area of Chiang Mai, it's like being kneaded by a cuddlesome tiger. When the claws make you whimper, the tiger gives an enigmatic smile and continues to press, prod, pull, and generally paddle in your muscles until you sizzle. My tiger growled at my keyboard-tense shoulders and wrists, and gave them a specially meticulous mauling. After 2 hours you pay 300 baht - that's 6 quid - and walk out feeling magical.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Apparently, in the UK Tesco supermarkets take one pound in every 8 spent. Here in Thailand I think 7 out of every 8 must be spent on the street. From snack shacks along kerbs and temple tourist stalls to thriving local food markets, there's a buying opportunity at every turn. We went by scooter - an exhilarating trip as helmet laws are undetectable here - to the market my hosts use, a sprawl of gorgeous looking fruit & vegetables, still hectic at sunset though the entire place froze on the dot of 6pm for the Thai national anthem. We went by rickshaw, towed by a cheery septagenarian who peddled at the pace of - well, a 70-year old on a bike towing a rickshaw gives the picture - to the huge night market in Chiang Rai.
We walked over the Myanmar border into Tacheleik on a day pass and were overwhelmed with offers of fake relics, fake designer accessories, fake gems and fake viagra. Rather more sadly you can also buy real tusks, horns, and skins of baby tigers. Like the past, Burma is another country: they do things differently there.

Back in Chiang Mai there's Sunday Walking Street, with hill tribe crafts alongside the usual commercial tourist teeshirts, Beautiful bodies are for sale too, on a time-share basis. Bars -not especially aimed at tourists- feature catwalks where girls, boys, and boy-girls in scanty attire gyrate with their sale numbers on display. How do I know? Because after supper in town my host and his charming university colleague on hearing I've been to Thailand 3 times but never been to a ladyboy bar or watched the beautiful kathoye cabarets, decided this must be instantly remedied & carted me off for a wow!-style eyeopener. Home by tuk-tuk.

It's a week now since I left the snow of England, and I'm half-way through my stay. In that time, as well as exploring my local environs, I've journeyed with Steve to the northernmost tip of Thailand, through the beautiful Chiang Rai province with its Laos-y landscape of rice fields and misty distant mountains; I've been to the Golden Triangle and watched the mighty Mekong river winding between Laos, Thailand, and Burma; I've spent time in sacred places, and enjoyed food so delectable it needs a separate post.
Scenes I'll remember: the viridian paddy fields of Chiang Rai hedged with stumpy palms, with water buffalo and workers in broad-brimmed straw hats; and the brilliant jammy colours of bougainvillea along the central reservations of city roads; Wat Rong Khun with its fountains and extraordinary shimmering spiky contours; the sumptuous ancient temples and buddhas, mostly gilded, with their elephant and dragon acolytes. Why is it that these gaudy golden figures, often with supercilious or even fatuous expressions, evoke such feelings of tranquility and awe? I don't know, but they do. Maybe they've become so saturated by generations of reverence and sincerity that even a wary westerner can feel stirred by a bubble of hope for something universally connecting and life affirming...

I'll conclude these transcendental thoughts with an image of one of the many signs along Hang Dong Road.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Another bulletin from Planet Luxury: Breakfast at the hotel is amazing - anything you might conceivably desire is either already on display, probably primped in the shape of a heart or a fan, or else will be created for you on the spot by a team of chefs wielding pans and griddles. Refills of coffee arrive like unexpected purchases at an auction, you only have to raise an eyebrow. The roof-top pool gardens, where my day was spent basking in 32 degree sunshine, are a blossom-filled paradise, but by evening I'm glutted with indolence and ready for the next step in this adventure - the beautiful and culturally fascinating area of Chiang Mai.
The flight takes an hour, and by midnight I'm unpacked in my new temporary home, a lovely tranquil room with views to the Doi Suthep mountains, foothills of the Himalayas extending all the way to Burma.
Stephen designed both house and garden, and sitting here in sunshine surrounded by banana and mango trees I completely understand why he says he'd never go back to live in the UK.
In fact I'd probably sit here all day, listening to the minah birds and watching the fish in the lily ponds, but Mam and Steve are keen to show me more of the local environment. First trip is to Wat Suthep, the temple on the mountain.
Mythology has it that the site, established in 1383, was chosen by a white elephant sent wandering with a sacred relic. Immensely popular with locals and visitors alike, the temple is crammed with statues & gilded chedi. It's approached by 306 steps which are crammed with stalls selling souvenirs and snacks, including delicious fresh mandarin orange juice.

Bhubing Palace, further up the mountain road, was established for the Queen in 1961 and is famed for magnificent gardens so extensive you have to take a golf-cart to get around them. Here be beds of scented old-English roses, vivid scarlet avenues of poinsettias, forest fern gardens, and a resevoir garden for royal parties, with palace apartments scattered around like a private regal Centerparcs. White orchids are everywhere, apparently symbiotic, clambering up india rubber trees and looping around burmese bamboos.

On next to the top of the mountain to see the Hmong village of Ban Doi Pui. The traditional income here was from heroin so the village has become a tourist market, their opium poppy terraces now gardens. These hill-tribes are the oldest indigenous peoples of the area, still speaking their own language and retaining their animist religions which are integrated with buddhism in Thailand - as is Hinduism. Ganesh, the elephant god, remover of obstacles and lord of new beginnings, even has a shrine in the most sacred part of Wat Suthep. Steve tells me more about the amazing tolerance of this culture over supper of Dam fish and Singha beer at a lakeside restaurant.
I'll end this busy posting with a Buddah image in pleasantly reposed Tuesday position, which seems appropriate for today.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

The best thing to do on a long haul flight is eat & drink everything proffered and watch back-to-back movies, instead of getting angsty about being unable to sleep. Eleven hours melted by, till was happily melting too in 33 degree sunshine at Suvarnabhumi Airport which looks like a sci-fi space city in the devouring coils of a massive mythical metal snake. My instructions were to take a taxi to Plaza Athenee, possibly the biggest hotel in Bangkok but unheard of by my driver who hung on his cellphone for directions while zigzagging at speed along the 7-lane highway into the city.
This is quite the poshest place I've ever stayed at: a Land of Smiles at every turn, with people to gesture to the people who gesture at the lift. I met up with my Chiang Mai hosts, Stephen Whitehead and his wife Mam who are currently participating in a British Council event here, for a meal in one of the elegant restaurants. Spacious as ballrooms, gamalan playing discreetly, every dish dressaged up like an entry in a flower show. At Mam's suggestion I had Pad Thai - a kind of noodle omelette with prawns and sticky peanut sauce which is a national dish - she had something spicy, and Steve's rice dish arrived in a pineapple. All wondrously out of my league, as is my deluxe room where I can sit in robe and slippers nibbling from the complementary fruit bowl and looking out over the night skyline of Bangkok at 3 am. Which is the best thing to do when arriving in another time zone, instead of getting angsty about being unable to sleep...

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

"Just Write" was the title of Alison's workshop in Frome Library, and two dozen people squeezed around the table to follow her injunction: No procrastination, no excuses - and not much elbow room, but a highly successful session.

There's something about the Bath Theatre Royal that always makes me feel like a footballer in the wrong terrace... or perhaps at the wrong game entirely. Lacrosse, maybe.
My Wonderful Day
is Alan Ayckbourn's 73rd play and his trophy shelf groans with past awards; the acting was impeccable and the lighting was memorable, cleverer than anything in the script in fact. The characters comprised a philandering TV presenter, his dippy blonde mistress, angry wife, hanger-on chum, loquacious cleaner and her daughter Winnie. And before you take that short step to the conclusion they're all last-century clich├ęs let me tell you that 9 year old Winnie is a biddable child who prefers writing to watching television and speaks French all day on maternal demand, a device necessary for the plot: that Winnie unobserved can chronicle various previous and present infidelities in her notebook. Ayesha Antoine - unbelievably 20 years older than her role - is brilliant as the child who follows every nuance of the adult action with eyes like sucked gobstoppers, but despite rapturous reviews of this play off Broadway, in the chilly stalls of Theatre Royal Bath it was a long two hours.

And now I'm bailing out on February - UK February anyway: on Friday I'm off to Chiang Mai. My host, Dr Stephen Whitehead, tells me not to pack any woollies for my stay.. I'll be thinking of you all, speak later....