Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Chiang Rai Days

What to do without visiting a wat

Chiang Rai is a fairly unprepossessing town in northeast Thailand. Most tourists who visit are there for a day or two while passing through to Laos, and may visit some of the historic wats, take a trip or two out of town to somewhere like the White Temple, and visit the Night Bazaar in the evening. Few people spend a week or more. This is a shame because Chiang Rai is a very friendly town and a pretty good place to explore normal northern Thai life away from the main sights and activities. If you do want to spend more time here are some ideas for things to do, places to see, from longtail boat trips and walking market shopping expeditions to coffee and classical music. This complements my reviews of Chiang Rai wats and the Night Bazaar.

There is a TAT Tourist Office in town. It has free maps and some useful info on places to go too. There is also a quarterly free English-language Chiang Rai magazine with some ideas for places to visit in and outside town as well as useful maps.

Take a Longtail boat
With the dusky Mae Kok river running through Chiang Rai, it is a good point to take a trip or tour on a longtail boat to see the forested hills sweep by. They can be chartered from the pier near to the bridge past the Bamboo Wat. Prices depend on distance and bargaining charm. You can go upstream to Ban Ruamit Elephant camp, My Dream at Khaew Waaw Dam village and Tha Ton or downstream as far as Chiang Mai.

Sniff the flowers
Host of Purple Orchids
Orchids in 2009

Chiang Rai hosts a colourful flower show every January on the enthusiastically named Chiang Rai beach. Its worth going for the extensive displays of orchids alone. You can catch one of the many longtails ferrying passengers between the pier and the beach for about 20B a person one way.

Tell the time
Counting Out 2008
Clock tower counting down to new year 2009

The artist who designed the White Temple also donated a new clocktower to Chiang Rai. He felt the old one was a bit shoddy and that Chiang Rai needed a new tourist sight. It is a gold tower in his flamboyant neo-Thai style. Not only does it tell the time but it also displays its own mini light-show on the hour at 6pm, 7pm and 8pm. It is near to the local produce market, to where the old clock has been relocated, at the junction of thanons Suksathit, Phahonyothin, Jet Yot and Banphrakan.

Drink tea, do coffee

Panja Bakeshop

Chiang Rai has lots of great little, independent café-cum-bakeries dotted throughout town. Each serves Chinese and black teas, coffee and home-baked cakes. There are plenty to choose from by strolling around town. Here are three of my favourites. Panja Bakeshop is a very friendly Thai-Chinese café on Th Suksathit between the produce market and the clocktower. It is great for small Chinese-style savoury or sweet pastries. You can also say hello to Elvis the fish. BaanChivitMai is a Swedish-run place near to the old bus station in the centre of town. It has delicious cakes and a vast range of 5B cookies as well as internet. All profits go to local charity work. Doi Chaang is the café of one of the local premium coffee estates. An air-con ground floor room and a first floor balcony surround two side of an atrium full of plants cascading around a naturalistic fountain. It is just north of the Night Bazaar on Th Ratanaket.

Listen to classical music
Chiang Rai Youth Orchestra 1
Orchestral manoeuvres in Doi Chaang

Doi Chaang hosts free chamber concerts by the Chiang Rai Youth Orchestra. They are currently weekly on Sunday afternoons. The atrium fills with young violinists, cellists and a worker of the double bass playing a range of light classical classics. The orchestra leader is a very dedicated music teacher.

Read a book
There are two secondhand bookshops in town where you can buy and part-exchange paperbacks. Gare Garon is near the bus station, while the cheaper Orn’s Bookshop is just past Wat Jet Yot. Orn’s is the eponymous shop of a very friendly German ex-pat.

Walk to the shops

Walking Market food market

Every Saturday night Th Thanalai is closed to traffic and converted into the Walking Market, a very long market boasting plenty of stalls selling local handicrafts, clothes and food. One adjoining square is given-over to a large food market with stalls selling a range of meals and snacks. Music and dance performances are scattered along its length. The market competes well with the Chiang Rai Sunday Walking Market for atmosphere and range of stalls, while surpassing its more famous twin on food. It begins about 4pm and gets pretty crowded by 8pm, before closing about 10pm. It is a great place to browse and buy gifts, eat some great food and join in with Thais doing one of their favourite leisure activities – shopping combined with eating.

Do lunch

Rimkok pool

Most of the upmarket resorts in and around town put on sumptuous and extensive buffet lunches. You can enjoy a vast range of Thai and Western meals, salads, fruit and desserts for about 150 baht a person. The Rimkok, just outside of town on the otherwise of the river, has a particularly good one for 140 baht. It is served in the restaurant near the pool. If you’re vegetarian simply ask them to cook you some veggie meals when you buy your ticket and they’ll being them to your table shortly after you sit down. We were served four different veggie Thai dishes. The Rimkok also has the only pool open to non-guests. You can enjoy the long, curving pool with outdoor jacuzzi for the day at 80 baht a person. Go five times and your sixth visit is free.

Discover where old spirit houses go to die
Abandoned Spirit Houses
Spirit Houses under the Big Tree

There is a beautifully big tree near the public library. Turn left off the main road at the tourist office and go down the quieter road, take a right turn, left and another right on the same road and you'll see the spreading canopy of the tree span the road. People deposit old spirit houses under this auspicious tree.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Walks from My Dream

Khaew Waaw Dam

If you stay at My Dream guesthouse you can do 1 and 2 day treks with Nan. These combine off-road driving and walking in the nearby mountains visiting neighbouring Lahu, Akha and Karen villages.

Rice paddies

You don’t need to go on a trek if you wish to explore the beautiful forest area around the guesthouse. There are at least four directions you can walk independently along easy-to-follow dirt roads and mountain paths. The routes can take you through the stunning countryside of tropical rainforest, bamboo and rice paddies, either along the Mae Kok river or up into the mountains. You can easily make up your own half or full day treks if you take your own water and food. I’ve outlined four routes below. If you get up with the sun you may be rewarded with an atmospheric misty morning that characterises images of rural East Asia. In Khaew Waw Dam you can also discover hand-made traditional weaving. Or travel towards Chiang Rai and go for an elephant ride.

Rice 'hay'

You can also spend time in Khaew Waw Dam village itself. There are two shops selling snacks and drinks; one also stocking fruit and veg, the other making som tams. Many households weave traditional Karen textiles during the dry season. A Thai woman from Isan called Atitaya and her French husband Thom live right next door to the guesthouse with their family. She also weaves, collecting plants from the surrounding to dye her cotton with natural colours before spinning and weaving the threads. She does this all by hand on a home-made bamboo spinning wheel and loom to produce amazing scarves and bedspreads. She speaks good English and is happy to talk about how she makes her textiles and show her work. Do call round to see if she is there if you stay at My Dream.

Ati weaving

A few kilometres down the road back to Chiang Rai is Ban Ruamit Elephant Camp. I don’t know about you but I’m always in two minds about elephant camps and rides. On one hand it seems like an abuse of these wonderful giants, yet on the other the money camps bring in from rides can help to look after the highly endangered Asian elephant. It really depends on the camp as to whether this is abuse or care. Ban Ruamit seems like a good camp. The elephants do have to spend all day in a small riverside area, but by the early evening they are free to wander the nearby jungle until the following morning. The income the camp generates probably does mean that these elephants are being conserved rather than sent down to Bangkok to follow a mahout around the streets. Rides cost 200B or 400B for a half or full hour which includes a trip around the village and down part of the river. You can also buy bananas, sweetcorn and sugar cane to feed the elephants at 20B a bag. There’s the usual tourist tat souvenir stalls and a couple of cafes.

Close encounters of the trunk kind

Walking Route 1 – Hot Spring Refresher
Turn right out of My Dream, join the dirt road back to Chiang Rai passing the shop. After about 250m and just before the road takes a short incline you’ll see a gap in the trees on your right. Take this to the hanging bridge and cross the river. Turn left on the other side and follow the dirt road beside the river. This road is used by pick-ups and motorbikes so you’ll encounter some traffic. The route gives you great views of the river as you walk through bamboo stands, bananas and forest. You’ll pass a Lahu village on your right soon after the bridge. Another 2km brings you to an Akha village, which still has a village swing. A further 2km brings you to the national park where there are natural hot springs you can look at, though these ones are too hot for a dip, toilets and a refreshment stall selling snacks and drinks, as well as instant noodles and eggs they’ll boil for you.

Natural hot springs in national park

About 1km further on brings you to the hot springs you can get into. About 30B buys you entry, 10B use of a towel and 50B a private changing room rather than the small communal one. These are a tourist destination so they have been built up. You have a concrete wall around the spring itself, a small hot pool you can boil eggs in (you buy the eggs from any of the cafes and shops at 20B for five in a basket and after 30 minutes you should have soft-boiled eggs), and a what is effectively an open-air swimming pool at about 37+ oC you can get into. The far end has the hottest water. If you don’t want to walk back you can either hitch a lift on a passing pick-up or pay about 200-300B to get someone to drive you back to the bridge. Just ask for the bridge, Khaew Waw Dam or My Dream.

Boiling eggs

Route 2 – Village Stroll
This time turn right once over the bridge and follow the same dirt road upriver. It passes similar landscape to the hot springs route. After a couple of kilometres you’ll come to another Lahu village. The forest looks impressive and is still part of the national park. You can walk for as long as you like along this road taking in the same sort of views.

Local buffalo

Route 3 – River Jungle
Turn left out of My Dream and walk up to the dirt road next to the other shop with som tams. Turn left here and walk upriver along the road. You’ll be away from the river for the first kilometre or so. You’ll pass an army general’s forest landscape garden and come to rice paddies with buffalos dotted with bamboo drying platforms and shelters. When you reach the fork in the road take the left one. You’ll quickly be surrounded with thick bamboo and forest. This soon drops back down to the river and gives a great forest experience. There are tribal villages further along the road (which also means some traffic).

Route 4 – Mountain Rice Climb

Misty mountain hop

This is my favourite of the four. Take the right hand path at the fork of route 3. You’ll notice that the path becomes partly grassed-over which is because hardly any vehicles use this route except for the occasional person on a motorbike getting to their rice paddies. This is the most tranquil route with the best views. You’ll soon begin to climb steadily. The land rises to your left through forest and bamboo. On your right you overlook the valley of a mountain stream. The valley is quite wide and flat to begin with then narrows. Nearly all of the flat land is terraced into rice paddies dotted with the bamboo shelters, drying stands and occasional houses of the people who work the paddies. You’ll see cleared areas amongst the stalks of harvested rice surrounded by mounds of rive hay. These are threshing floors used to separate the rice from the stalks. There are also buffalo, pigs and geese. After about 2 or 3km you come to a point where you really must turn around for a spectacular view down the valley. It’s even better on a misty morning.

Mountain view

The path winds upwards through more and more picturesque forest and bamboo-clad slopes, the air becoming fresher and fresher, the paddies gradually narrowing, the stream burbling away next to you. Beyond the viewpoint you feel like you’re on a high mountain route. You can basically keep on walking along this path until you need to turn around. You’ll eventually come to some tribal villages if you keep going and should be able to visit one or two and make it back to My Dream before dark depending on your walking speed.

High bridge

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

My Dream Guesthouse

My Dream

Many years ago a Karen man from Chiang Mai province worked in a guesthouse in Chiang Rai. He lived with his wife in the small Karen village Khaew Waaw Dam a few kilometres out of town on the Mae Kok River. For the last ten years his dream has been a reality for tourists staying in his village. After a week at My Dream Guesthouse it is firmly in my top five guesthouses in Thailand.

Riverside bungalows

Anan and his wife Polly have worked hard to create a small place to stay that is more than just a collection of wooden bungalows by a river. For a start the bungalows are arranged around an immaculate forest garden, alive with birdsong and colourful dashes of passing butterflies. Each of his 13 teak and bamboo rooms is tastefully and simply decorated, each with a large bed encased within a mosquito net that hints at the opulence of a four-poster. He was determined to create the garden, despite others in the village questioning why he spent time on something that didn't earn money, so that visitors would get the most pleasure from their stay in rural northern Thailand. His ethos that shines through in lovingly tended flowering bushes and lawn brightens everything that is provided at the guesthouse and reflects his effusive, sunny disposition. He welcomes new guests with a smile and laughing conversation when he is not on a mountain leading one of the treks he offers to guests. You can do one, two or three day treks around tribal villages in the surrounding mountains.

Delicious large portions of Thai food are served in the riverside restaurant. If, like us, you have a baby evening meals are brought on a tray to your balcony. A fire is lit on the small private beach each evening from where you can sit and gaze at the milky way or find your way around by the light of the full moon. The view from the beach is of the surging river flowing by and the forest-and-bamboo-clad hills beyond. The beach and garden are perfect for hanging out with a family or just taking it easy after a trek.

My Dream beach

During our week staying at My Dream we met Didi, a French cycling tour leader, who was returning to My Dream for his fourth year in a row with 14 cyclists on a two-week mountain biking tour. He values the personal service that Anan provides. A rep from a Swiss tour company offering tours for two to three people stayed the night to check out the guesthouse for their next brochure. Some of the guests come with pre-arranged tours to use My Dream as a base before heading higher into the mountains for trekking. Many companies employ Anan to lead the treks for them. We also met a young Austrian who was passing through on his way from Tha Thon to Chiang Mai, partly travelling along the river itself. If you don't fancy a long trek but prefer to move beyond the garden there are plenty of easy activities to leave the guesthouse for, from visits to elephant camps and hot springs to hikes into the mountains, more of which in my Khaew Waaw Dam blog entry which I'll post soon.

Anan with his daugher Dia

Everything at the guesthouse has been thought about to make your stay memorable, to remember My Dream and to remember Anan who dreamt of having a forest guesthouse by the river. Live his dream and make it part of one of your own.

Garden view to the river

Getting there and costs
You can reach My Dream by land or water. It is on the long-tailed boat taxi service connecting Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Tha Ton. A one-way trip between My Dream and Chiang Rai costs about 120 baht per person and takes 1 1/2 hours down river to the town. Expect a little longer upstream. Polly's father runs the only taxi in Khaew Waaw Dam. He goes into Chiang Rai about 6.30am every day except Sunday. He will pick you up from your guesthouse in Chiang Rai on his return trip sometime between 11am and 1pm if you ring and arrange with Anan a day in advance. Depending on occupancy this will either cost the regular fare or be courtesy of My Dream. The journey takes about half an hour. You can also hitch pretty easily from the village down towards Chiang Rai so it is possible to make the return trip for free.

Garden-facing rooms and bungalows currently cost 300 baht per night, riverside bungalows 500 baht. Most meals cost between 40 and 50B. Meals on rice are 50B or 40B if you're vegetarian. There are two small shops in the village selling snacks, drinks and some fruit and veg. One pounds up a wicked som tam (papaya salad) for 15B.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

PinPao Guesthouse, Old Sukthothai

I've just posted a comment on my review of the Orchid Hibiscus to update it and break the news about Paolo and Pinthong's new place in Old Sukhothai - PinPao.

The comment is here too if you don't want to read about the OH.

Paolo and Pinthong have just opened another guesthouse - the eponymous PinPao which is a large new house on the main road into Old Sukhothai. They were just putting the finishing touches to PinPao while we were there and Pinthong showed us around a couple of days before they opened its doors to guests for Loi Krathong. The place is fantastic inside. It is a guesthouse rather than bungalows or rooms around a garden so it is different in character to the Orchid Hibiscus. Each room is ensuite and slightly differently sumptiously decorated in Pinthong's signature contemporary Thai style. Expect lots of plump cushions, cereamic flowers and handpainted woodwork. PinPao is on the riverside and breakfast will be set on a terrace overlooking the river. Paolo and Pinthong are looking into boat trips along the river to the Historical Park.

A wooden footbridge leads over to a swimming pool set in a concrete lido, with more ceramic flowers, and garden. The pool and garden were coming to the end of construction when we looked around.

PinPao is another five-star mid-range guesthouse for Sukhothai, building on the success of the Orchid Hibiscus. Prices are the same - currently 800baht for a double room with the same style breakfast included. PinPao also has a cafe specialising in authentic Italian coffee, as you'd expect from Paolo. The main advantage of the PinPao over the Orchid are its position on the main road which put it much closer to the Historical Park. This means it is an easy walking distance to the Park and other amenities of Old Sukhothai. You can expect the same high quality service and rooms as well as a swimming pool but not quite the same extent of gardens nor family romos. If 800baht is your budget, even just for a few nights of a longer trip, I doubt you'll be disappointed by either of Paolo and Pinthong's guesthouses while in Old Sukhothai.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

The White Temple

Wat Rong Khun - White Temple

There is a new Buddhist temple being built outside Chiang Rai, if merely built is the right word. Imagined into existence is possibly a better description for this phantasmagoric brainchild of Thai artist Chaloemchai Khositphiphat and his overworking imagination.

It is close to the city of historical temples yet so far removed from them as to almost deserve a different classification. For one there is not the quiet reverent space of many temples, but a bustling tourist attraction complete with shopping and dining area, camera-snapping Thais and guardians keeping the masses in line. Welcome to Wat Rong Khun, the White Temple, the

Attention to detail is incredible with the outside of the building and other structures decorated lavishly with ornate swirling designs. The exterior is white with silver mirrors and changes colour with cloud and sun. Under cloud it has a deathly pale yellow palor, which when set behind leafless trees, is reminiscent of a Tim Burton film set. When the sun shines the mirrors twinkle and the white takes on the hues of its surroundings - grass green, sky blue and clothings reds, yellows and oranges.

The art inside the hall does strike me as being the product of a talented fantasy-loving teenager or 70s heavy metal album cover artist. That, however is not a surprise or such criticism as it may sound. Where, after all, did the artists of psychedelic album covers or fantasy novel covers get some of their inspiration? Hindu and Buddhist religious art. The wat's art brings these influences together.

It is a lot of fun with hints at attempts to make statements. Superman, Spiderman and the Matrix sit alongside Buddhist apsaras, garudas and demons. The World Trade Centre is shown during its destruction by Al Qaida with a demon-headed serpentine petrol pump pipe snaking around one of the towers. Yet how much do intended meanings resonate after a single visit? That probably depends on your attitudes to politics, fantasy and Buddhist religious art.

The dream is still being built and all power to him for making something so bold that it generates reactions from visitors. You will either love or hate it but you're unlikely to feel indifferent towards it.

As you enter you come face-to-face with a gold structure bearing a white Buddha in its ornate folds and twists.

Wat Rong Khun - White Temple

After passing the first structure between ponds with white fish you are next greeted at the approach to the central hall by concrete hands reaching out to the air and your sense of fun. Some hold skulls up next to others proffering alms bowls.

Wat Rong Khun - White Temple

Apsaras or bodhisatvas float in the air either side of the approach to the central hall. Every inch of the white building is adorned with white mirrors.

Wat Rong Khun - White Temple

Wat Rong Khun - White Temple

To either side of the hall are matching pairs of Buddhas facing each other.

Wat Rong Khun - White Temple

The purity of white certainly makes a statement that cannot fail to influence you in some way, even if only while there. It is perhaps part Barcelona's Sagrada Familia, part Taj Maha, part Southfork.

The temple is very easy to reach from Chiang Rai. A sangthaew from the produce market station near Wat Phra Singh costs 20 baht and they leave regularly through the day. You should not have to wait more than 20 minutes. Tell the drivers you want a minibus not taxi to catch one of the regular departures rather than charter a whole vehicle for yourself at maybe 500-700 baht. You can also catch a local bus to Phayao from the old bus station in the city centre or a Chiang Mai bus from the new station on the city's edge. The journey takes less than 30 minutes. To return to Chiang Rai go up to the main road and flag down a passing sangthaew or bus. A sangthaew driver spotted us walking towards the road and waited for us to get to him.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Loi Krathong, Thailand

Krathongs made from coloured ice cream cornets

Loi Krathong, Chiang Mai 2009

Loi Krathong is one of Thailand's major annual festivals and a must do for anyone visiting the country in the autumn. The festival is a celebration of water through light, thanking water for the fertility it provides and apologising for pollution we cause by sending small floats of plants and flowers with incense and candles into rivers and other waterways. The Thai for the floats is krathong and to loi is to float them on their way. Millions of Thais throughout the country make or buy krathongs then gather at specific locations in each city, town or village that have traditionally been used for centuries to loi their krathongs. The candles seem to go out quite quickly and darkened krathongs tend to gather along the water's edge, so anyone expecting to see rivers sparkling with lights may be disappointed unless the weather is totally calm. Think giant vegetable soup with too many cooks. Households light candles at their boundaries and entrances, in many ways similar to Hindu diwali.

Kom Loi about to be released

Where the festival is so enjoyable is because it s an almighty excuse for Thais to do what they love best - eating, shopping, having fun and listening to loud music. Food and gift stalls line the streets, performances are held and processions of motorised krathongs head down streets. It is as much a celebration of modern Thai life as it is one of tradition. The best way to experience it is to throw yourself right in, while keeping out of the water. You might also need to keep your head down from the odd stray firework or quickly descending kom loi, a miniature candle-powered hot air balloon that are set floating in the sky in droves. Many have wishes attached to them. Not all manage to ascend to the heavens before they reach a tree or power cables or simply lose their upward momentum above a crowd.


The festival is not the same date every year according to the Gregorian calender because it is fixed to the 13 month lunar calendar, falling on the full moon of the 12th month. Wherever you are in Thailand at the time of Loi Krathong you will undoubtedly enjoy. I have met farang women staying in villages who have been dressed as Thai women and put on the top of krathongs in processions. Three of my favourite places to loi a krathong are Chiang Mai, Sukhothai and Ayutthaya.

Tha Phrae gate, Chiang Mai

People in Chiang Mai know how to enjoy life and bring this zest for fun to Loi Krathong over 4 days or so. Each night activity is focused around the Tha Phrae Gate and Narawat Bridge on the Ping River. Where Tha Phae gate is a laidback market full of teanagers comically posing for photos below lanterns, the River is a cacophony of noise and sound resounding to fireworks carronading from the bridge. Call into a wat on the route to the river to sign a kom loi with a wish and float it away with the help of young monks. A procession that begins at the gate converges on the river on the night of Loi Krathong itself.

Buddhist Loi Krathong ceremony, Chiang Rai

Sukhothai Historical Park

Where Loi Krathong in Chiang Mai is one great street party, in Sukhothai it is the creation of a magical, twinkling world of light and dark over four evenings. The World Heritage Historical Park is taken over with thousands of candles and lanterns on the chedis and in the ponds. A sound and light show animates Wat Mahathat with colourful lights and loud noises culminating in a firework display. The road to the park and the lanes in the park are lined with food and gift stalls.

Picnics below the lights in Sukhothai

Buddhas for sale in a Loi Krathong market

Ayutthaya may be a World Heritage Historical Park similar to Sukhothai but Loi Krathong is totally different. Here it is a brash six-day fairground and festival featuring lots of loud dance music, dodgems, shows and sound stages of boy bands. This action is concentrated in one corner near Wat Mahathat but the main loi locations are on the Chao Praya river near Wat Yai Chai Mongkol. Plenty of people loi on the ponds of the historical park too and boys tread water to either help the krathongs away from the banks or to salvage and resell them later.

Kom Loi gang

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Ethnological Museum of Thrace

The Art of Collective Memory

On a quiet street in downtown Alexandroupolis, situated near a cafe and a church, is an imposing historical building  dates from the last years of the 19th century. Neo-classical marble columns stand guard above a flight of steps and to either side of a solid wooden door. We approached after a diversion behind the church, where a kindly lady pointed us in the right direction, to find the door closed and locked.  This was a while after the stated opening time. Was the museum closed? We knocked. Soon, we heard footsteps approaching and a young face appeared in the door's window. 'Come in', he called throwing open the door and welcoming us into a warm wooden room lined with display cases that smelt and felt of well-worn age. A museum where you knock to have the door opened for you is a rare thing. 

Inside time seemed to pause, to take on the sheen of past ages when Thrace was a very different region, Greece another country altogether and Turkey was the Ottoman Empire. All three and their turbulent history converge on this quiet house once owned by a successful businessman which unwinds away from the history of empires to expose the people's history of the communities who lived on this crossroads between Europe and Asia.

This is not a museum of high culture, of distant difficult-to-relate-to people. This is a museum of the everyday, of ordinary folks doing the ordinary things they needed to do before communiting, industrialisation and office jobs became the norm. It's a story of hard graft and simple pleasures. The museum is divided into themed rooms. Dress, religion and agricultural work make up a large part of the displays as you would imagine. An exhibition of mannequins sporting traditional clothes in front of a map of the region and black and white photographs from a time when these clothes were commonly worn is interesting, not solely for the clothes but for the similarities I've seen in the traditional clothes of South-East Asian hilltribes and the Maya of Central America. It seems that there are common uses of textiles in all three regions which tend towards a black material for the body of a jacket which is then adorned in multi-coloured embroidery. A universal language of the stitch?

Rooms of agricultural tools from before mechanisation always fascinate and impress me. They are hand-made tools for hand-made work, each as individual as the person who made them and worn smooth, buckled or bent through hard labour on the soil. They resonate with a time when calloused hands fed millions, when food was wrung from dry earth. They put into perspective the easy availability of over-ready meals and Kenyan green beans on supermarket shelves.

One thing that makes the museum distinctive is the presence of evocative, sociological descriptions for each room. Where many museums such as this rely on the functional or sentimental to explain their collections, here we are encouraged to think beyond the surface and deeper into the social meanings of the practices that the objects were used in, whether religious, ceremonial or utilitarian. The museum is to be applauded for taking this approach.

Three of the rooms are devoted to pleasure, to simple pleasures that ease stiff backs and reward days of hard work. These are alcohol, tobacco and sweets. I'm not sure if I've been to a museum with so much space given to this unholy trinity. The room of sweets has fascinating videos of traditional boiled sweets and Turkish Delight being made by hand in copper pans and on marble tables. The amount of work and art in making the sweets makes a packet of polos seem like a cheap fix. I took to the maker, a kindly grey-haired gentleman with the smile of a man who enjoys making things to make other people happy. I went into a shop selling hand-made sweets, ouzo and dried fruit after leaving the museum and looked upon the shelves of delights with child-again eyes of wonder. The video of the sweet man put magic back into the simplest of pleasures that can otherwise be so easily overlooked. I thank the museum for that and for revealing the rich texture of work-worn tools.

There was something very big missing from the museum, however. Not quite an elephant in the room perhaps, but massive enough to make me wonder whether this was historical gloss or deliberate avoidance. What of Thrace's position on the crossroads between Europe and Asia, and all the violence that has brought? Greek Thrace is only one part of Thrace, the other two regions having been situated in Bulgaria and Turkey since the 1920s.  Community violence and enforced mass migrations followed when Ataturk created Turkey out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire following World War 1. Thrace had a very mixed ethnic make-up of Greeks, Turks, Bulgarians, Greek Turks and Turkish Greeks at the time most of the tools in the museum were used.  There is no reference to this at all. I like to think the museum has opted to avoid the burden of addressing this issue so that the lives of people shine out without being reduced to shadows in a wider political story. It is easier to for the people behind the displays to take centre stage when they're not subjugated to the chorus of national histories. 

The Museum is at 63, 14th of May Street, Alexandroupolis. Current opening hours are Tues - Sat 10:00 - 14:00 & 18:00 - 21:00, Sun 10:00 - 13:30. Tel: +30 25510 36663. Email: info[at]

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Ice Cold in Alexandroupolis

Ordinary times in Greece.

Alex Lighthouse

I like visiting ordinary places, the nowhere towns and villages that lie beyond the tour agent's brochures and country visitor guides. They are the places where you have the chance to meet the real country. This is not to say that popular tourist destinations are less real than other places. Real people live in real houses and go about real lives in Barcelona, Amsterdam and Prague for example. But, as a tourist in a tourist honeypot you only experience the country through the prism of tourist activities, tourist restaurants and tourism staff. Your view of your host country is therefore mediated through a protective environment created specifically to give you a good holiday experience and to take your money in return. And why not? If you choose to spend your hard-earned cash to visit a foreign country you wish to have a wow factor, amazing memories and your pleasure well and truly catered for.

But what about the country behind the brochure? The places without the incredible historic sites, national parks, resorts or sublime beaches? I decided to go to just such an ordinary city in Greece - one of the most visited countries in Europe. I would avoid the sun-kissed Aegean islands with their idyllic beaches and the Classical cities of ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. Instead I would go somewhere ordinary for a weekend but still travel there as a tourist. So, I chose Alexandrouplis, a port on the Thracian coast nearer to Istanbul than Athens. So far removed from Classical Greece is Alexandrouplis, that its origins date to the late 19th century as a town that grew up around an Ottoman Turkish railway line but only after the area's capture by Russian troops during the Russo-Turkish war.

Turkey 44

The legacy of the Russians are wide, straight boulevards that were planned to facilitate troop movements but now provide a wide, open welcoming and modern feel. The lack of narrow widing streets instantly banish any stereotypes of quaint Aegean towns. These streets are not the main attractions of Alex, despite the sales, occasional pavement cafes and baklava bakeries, so let's leave them behind after a diversion to the fantastic Thracian Ethnology Museum. Nor are the small, slightly sruffy beaches littered with discarded cigarette butts, though the coarse sand dotted with marble pebbles and the warm Aegean are welcoming enough when compared to inland England.

Alex Beach

What makes Alex a place for a weekend break is the restaurant-lined sea-front promenade. A somewhat busy road during the day, it is transformed into a pedestrian haven at night when bollards prevent cars driving along it towards dark. Alexandrouplians love to promenade in the evenings and take over the road in their droves. From 6 weeks to 90 years old, couples, families and groups saunter along the road to create the most convivial perambulating street party in Europe. The pace is languid, as befits summer night-time temperatures in the high 20s centigrade, yet the atmosphere is bubbles with what can only be termed as glee. Things really get busy after 9 or 10pm when the street becomes difficult to see through the legs, prams and buggies. Stalls selling Middle Eastern jewellery and battery-powered dogs with manic eyes line the sides of the street. Portrait artists set up their easels and wait for subjects to sit themselves in front of the passing gaze and passing interest of thousands of strollers. Trendy open-air bars blast out pumping dance tracks to crowds drinking ice-cold beers and warmly-mixed cocktails.

Alexandroupolis Prom

Night Portrait

Apart from walking, almost everyone is out to eat. Every inch of the pavement above the concrete breakwater is packed with tables belonging to restaurants over the road. Alexandrouplis is one of the best and largest outdoor restaurants outside of Thailand. Each venue serves some of the best and freshest meals you can consume anywhere in the world. Menus bulge with a variety of traditional local salads, fish, seafood and meat. Whether creating a meze of small dishes or eating your way through a three-course meal, the wide range of dishes and variety provided by each chef's take on the same dishes will ensure you can happily satisfy your palate without repetition for at least a month.

Big Wheel

As a vegetarian, I tried two totally different Greek salads, two totally different cabbage and carrot salads, three totally different types of bread, fried cheese and rocket salad. Each was dressed in the sweetest, lightest, delicious olive oil. What better way to finish a meal than to join the throng and stroll along the prom. The restaurant tables thicken towards the locally iconic lighthouse above the Luna Park fairground, with its fast kart track offering exhilarating rides at 2 euros for 3 minutes. Near here is a baklava bakery for honey-drenched sweets to snack on while walking.

Speed Karts

Neither walking or eating are, however, the main occupation of the multitude. While chatter rises into the air in crescendoes, nor is conversation the prime activity. What everyone spends most of their time pursuing is people-watching. Whether walking or sitting, drinking or eating, talking or in silence, each and everyone is looking at their stranger-companions. You are as part of the entertainment as you are being entertained. And what this creates is one of the largest slow-paced festivals of conviviality in the world. That in its own right is enough to recommend Alexandroupolis for a weekend visit, as long as you're able to consider visiting a town without top theatre, without the finest architecture, without world class museums and art galleries, without the best beaches, without the best-preserved ancient monuments. If you can manage with all that then drink in one of the happiest of evening atmospheres with thousands of locals that can be found anywhere.

Orthodox Cross

I stayed in Hotel Park during my stay. Sat on busy Avenue Dimicratis and opposite a small wooded park, it is locally owned and been in the same family for 30 years. The friendly owner speaks good English. All rooms are en-suite with air con and there is a breakfast room and small swimming pool. Rooms are 30 - 40 euros for a single and 60 - 80 euros for a double depending on the season. Alexandroupolis has an airport with connections from Athens and Thessaloniki, is on the Athens to Istanbul rail line and has regular buses to Thessaloniki.

Hotel Park