Archive for November, 2011

Bangkok: Water Water Not Quite Everywhere

30 November, 2011

Thailand is awash in record flooding. Like a wine stain on a tablecloth, the high waters are slowly oozing across the flatlands of the south and eventually will flow into the sea. But in the meantime there’s been much hype around the threat to Bangkok. Reports of floodwaters around the capital has caused tourism to crash as people cancel trips or go directly to unaffected regions such as Phuket.

In reality, central Bangkok has managed to avoid the worst of the water, leaving people in outlying areas to deal with being inundated for weeks on end. Emergency levees have been built surrounding the city’s core which have spared the parts most visitors see albeit at a high cost to the those on the flood side of the barriers.

I visited Bangkok in late November and found the main parts of the city dry and functioning but weirdly empty of tourists. Here’s what I found.

Flying in we passed over the regions northwest of the city. [above] The land – farms, industrial areas, housing estates were covered with water as far as you could see. Bangkok’s second airport, Don Muang, [below] was completely inundated. This has caused some domestic flights to be cancelled.

The main airport, Suvarnabhumi (BKK), was wide open and – possibly thanks to the dip in visitor numbers – I was through immigration and customs in record time and was soon literally speeding my way into Bangkok on the new non-stop airport express train. [above] Built on elevated tracks, the trains (www.bangkokairporttrain.com) are free from flood worries. Originally the express trains ran to a city air terminal that didn’t link well with anything else. Now, however, some bureaucrat somewhere got smart and you can hop a train non-stop to Phaya Thai station where it’s an easy (yes, easy!) connection to the essential Sky Train network (also not flood-effected). For anyone who remembers the endless hassles with Bangkok’s predatory/rapacious airport cabbies, being able to whizz into town [below] in 17 minutes for 30 baht (US$3) is miraculous.

I stayed in Sukumvit, the commercial heart of Bangkok. Shopkeepers have hurriedly built flood walls in front of their shops (with sandbag steps) should the waters rise, although flooding has yet to happen here. [above] The name Sukumvit has always been leeringly appropriate given that every other white guy you see is with a young Thai woman. But flood fears have numbers down and the ubiquitous sidewalk vendors of sun-damaged dildos and laughably fake boxes of “Viagra” [below] are scratching for business.

Shopping malls and hotels were virtual ghost towns; the Royal Orchid Sheraton on the Chao Phraya River which normally would be buzzing with tour groups and travellers was deserted. Still, Bangkok’s hellacious traffic [above] remains just that.

One of my favourite Bangkok activities is travelling by public boat along the river. [above] Usually a bulging mix of locals, monks and tourists, the boats are still running despite the high water but with many fewer passengers. I was able to snag a seat on the half-empty boat. [below]

The river keeps topping the banks, so wooden walkways – ala Venice – provide access to the ferry stops [above] which in turn are protected by sandbags. [below]

The floods disrupted train services around Thailand but everything is running again from Bangkok. [above] The budget traveller special, the 15-hour slow train to Chiang Mai ($9) [below] is running again and offering non-AC adventure for locals and backpackers. [bottom]

 

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Chased by an Elephant, Seduced by a Leopard

3 November, 2011

And then the elephant charged. I was only 15 minutes into a morning safari in South Africa when we found this lone bull grazing for breakfast. A comparatively cold winter morning, this fellow ignored us while he wandered under the dull grey skies looking for something green amidst the leafless trees and brown seasonal growth. Or maybe he just wanted some coffee – I know I did as it was about 6:45am – because his mood turned ornery as he decided he’d heard enough camera snaps and suddenly ran at us, his seemingly ponderous bulk moving astonishingly quick. Fortunately our collective silent scream “Toyota don’t fail me now!” worked and we zoomed away.

Safari vehicles – besides having useful acceleration – are open-topped with stadium style seating for six or more. Ours was driven by Chris, who has lived his entire life amongst the animals of eastern South Africa in and near Kruger National Park. His knowledge is encyclopedic, his acceleration skills unflinching. The spotter from his perch sees rhinos where others see dead grass and barren shrubs. Here a waterbuck darts across our path.

Waterholes are great places to spot game, who emerge from the bush for a drink with the sort of furtive caution you’d use passing dark alleys in a tough neighborhood; you never know who you’ll run into. This one seemed empty, but their was an almost oppressive sense that eyes were watching and waiting from the bush.

We ran into a whole family of elephants, who, unlike their ill-humored bachelor peer, actually seemed to welcome our interruption to their ceaseless eating of dry grass. This little guy, about two months old, came right over for a look. Okay, anthropomorphism blabber aside, he was awfully cute and I wanted to hop out of the Toyota and give him a pat on his dear little hairy head and have a full-on Dumbo-moment. Then again, his nearby family of watchful females – some larger than the guy who chased us – helped dissuade me from having a Darwin Award moment.

A tedious cliché of safaris is the endless hype around the “Big Five.” Tourists, businesses and ads spout this phrase that refers to elephants, black rhinos, lions, leopards and cape buffalos. But what about perennial faves like giraffes, zebras and hippos? Turns out that “big five” was coined by white hunters who claimed that the animals were the ones most dangerous to a man with a gun hunting on foot. Besides serving as verbal viagra, the phrase obfuscated more mundane details about our hero’s bravery like the dozens of locals serving as bearers, cooks, spotters and more; tents filled with crates of whiskey, cigars and tins of paté; and a mansion at home with a waiting wall where the stuffed head of an African animal which hadn’t yet developed an evolutionary solution to high-velocity chunks of lead (beyond goring, stomping and/or eating the hunter) could be mounted. Still, there’s no denying the sheer menacing presence of the cape buffalo above.

Baleful as the cape buffalo may normally look, we spotted this blissed out fellow enjoying the ministrations of the appropriately named red-billed oxpecker. Although the bird’s taste for ticks might seem like an obvious benefit for the larger animal, in reality the feathered friend is about as beneficial as a heroin dealer. Sure the oxpecker removes irksome ticks but in the process it leaves a little wound which attracts more ticks; the more relief the buffalo gets, the more it wants.

Food. What nature show doesn’t climax with the hapless grazing critter brought down by a hungry cat, jackal or hyena? Here a herd of impalas bounded by, one glancing over to see if he needed to kick it up a notch.

Obviously this impala could have used another shot of spunk. What little of it was left was being carted along by a young male leopard in his prime. Although this might be the money shot for many, we were about to witness the real thrill.

Like impalas attuned to the slightest mood change of the herd leader, a sudden electricity in our guide Chris grabbed us. “Two!” came a sort of hushed shout and indeed there was a pair of leopards trotting past us. Thrilling yes, but Chris’s excitement made it clear this was something more. “I’ve never seen two together utterly ignoring each other like these guys.” We soon learned that leopards are fiercely solitary and when they encounter each other the results get messy, although unlike, say, the US Congress, they rarely fight to the death knowing there’s no future in mutual destruction.

Chris was still marveling at seeing two male leopards when we found this single – and obviously male –leopard having a rest. One of the pair we’d seen before, a tiny wound between his eyes showed that their encounter hadn’t been a kumbaya songfest (which incidentally is an old African spiritual song of unity).

After such a critter- and thrill-filled morning, it was time for a break and we stopped by a waterhole to stretch our legs. If the murky water – and temp – didn’t dissuade us from a dip, the menacing stare of the submerged hippopotamuses did. That these often parodied beasts are the most dangerous to humans in Africa is not a myth. Far from being happy herbivores, they are ill-tempered tubbos known for upsetting boats, squashing people and chomping the hapless in their huge canines. See below.

As you can see, ending up in a ill-humored hippo’s mouth is unlikely to end well, even if they don’t actually eat you. For much more on hippos and their peril (plus their equally fearsome poop and piss habits), see this column from the Straight Dope.

Over three days I went on six safaris in the Sabi Sand Reserve and eventually saw the full panoply of African icons, including giraffes, rhinos, zebras, warthogs (or: “really ugly mothers”) and a whole pride of lions who allowed us into their midst for an amazing amount of time. I’m always adverse to lists of things to do before you die, or take out the trash, but I would recommend you find a way to get out in the bush if you have any interest in nature. It was never especially warm or pretty on my winter drives during September, but that allowed the focus to fall entirely on the animals. It combined the thrill of a treasure hunt – sometimes we drove for an hour or more, just getting a glimpse of some “food” and the odd bird – with that pure sense of immersion we strive for on the road, with the odd burst of adrenaline.