Monday, 27 June 2011

wood, wood, wood

Everyone knows Australia to be a warm sunny land of perpetual sunshine.

Everyone is wrong. Canberra may be sunny in winter but these clear sunny days bring nights of sharp frost and chilly mornings.

Not a problem in itself, but the housebuilders of Canberra also seem to have fallen for the myth of Australia being a land of perpetual warmth and sunshine, and build houses without decent heating and insulation.

Well we've retrofitted insulation, central heating - a ludicrous ducted air system that sends toilet rolls fluttering in the breeze, but it's what people have - and double glazing, and still our lounge room is cold.

So we've turned to the wood stove fitted by the previous owners - a slow combustion stove that once it's heated keeps going and puts out a respectable amount of heat.

The stove of course burns wood, hard wood. Last winter, which was cold, we bought half a tonne and possibly the same again in bags from servos and hardware stores and that kept us going.

So this year we bought a half tonne load at the start of May, but seem to have gone through most of it already.

So this time we bought a tonne, which turned up midday Sunday, meaning Sunday afternoon was spent wheel barrowing up loads of wood to the wood shed.

The last bit's not quite true - about three quarters of the way through the wheel barrowing exercise, a couple of my neighbours who were having a kickabout with their teenage sons came over and started helping. Just turned up and did it, meaning we got the last quarter tonne shifted in about 10 minutes. Shows what neighbours are for.

The wood shed is now stacked nearly to the roof with wood - which surely should keep us warm through the rest of winter ...

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Thailand holiday

We've done something unusual - we've had a holiday!

Normally, Moncur vacations consist of long flights and mad dashes to visit classic archaeological and historical sites, or else serious travel. We had meant to combine both these themes this year with a trip through Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and down to Sinai, but this was clearly not the year for it.

So, what to do? We needed a break, we had done no alternative planning, so we went to a travel agent and said "Thailand, we like Thailand, what can you offer us?" and we ended up with eight days in a resort with a private beach near Ao Nang, to which we tacked on some extra days in Ko Lanta and a few days in Bangkok.

Now we'd never done anything like this in our lives before, and we had our doubts as to whether we'd fit in in a nice family resort, but it was very quiet, the start of the monsoon, but the weather was good enough to let us go swimming an kayaking most days.

Embarassingly, there were almost more staff than guests, but our major problem was monkeys. With so few people about the monkeys were coming out of the forest to scavenge through rubbish and try break into people's holiday units in search of food. On a couple of occasions we had to deploy umbrellas to threaten them. The staff used catapults to chase them off.

One day we went on a snorkelling trip - which was a blast - and quite fun as we inadvertantly ended up the only people of European descent on a boat full of Malaysians and Singaporeans, and after some initial coldness, they all became quite jolly, esepcially once they realised we were as skilled as they were at snorkelling, and happilly shared sunblock and instant noodles with us.

Ao Nang, at the start of the monsoon, was nothing special, a grubby strip of restaurants, souvenir shops, mixed in with tailors, massage parlours and and bars. In the rain it could seem as if it was just us, the whores, and the tuk tuk men. Having said that it wasn't really that sleazy, just off season, and as a consequence some of the more dubious sides of tourism in Thailand were more evident than they would be at the the peak times.

After Ao Nang we went down to Kianang Bay on Ko Lanta, which was really, really quiet. We;d originally meant to go to an eco centre for a few days wildlife tourism, but the road had washed out in a big pre monsoon storm so they'd closed early.

Ko Lanta was really, really quiet. It seemed like it was just us and all the tourist places had closed, leaving us the sensation of living in a Thai village. It was also pretty muslim with women in full veils riding Honda motor bikes, but everyone was relaxed and friendly with no one trying to chaffer us into buying things.

And then Bangkok. The day we flew from Krabi to Bangkok the monsoon arrived with a vengeance. The Thai airways Airbus took off in a storm, bucked and lurched all the way to Bangkok, with the hosties, obviously used to this, timing their service of the snack packs to T so no one spilled a thing.

Coming into Bangkok, the plane was struck by lightning. The lights went out, came back on, the plane lurched over the sky and straightened out. Instead of a cheerful reassuring announcement like "Well that didn't work, we'll have to go round again" they put on some Thai classical music, which did nothing to reassure anyone. After circling the airport for about fifteen minutes they tried a landing again and this time they managed a textbook landing despite the plane bouncing over the sky on approach. Once on the ground they then couldn't disembark anyone or unload the luggage because of the rain so we were about hour and a half late by the time we'd got our bags back, and the queue for taxis long and fractious so we tinned up for limousine into the city for 1100 baht as opposed to the usual six or seven hundred a cab costs once you've paid expressway and airport tolls.

While expensive, this was the right thing to do - smooth, comfortable, clean and fast and delivering us to our hotel without problems - the limousine divers have GPS and know where all the hotels are anyway so there's none of the buggering about you sometimes get with cabs.

And then we were in Bangkok, dirty grimy, sleazy Bangkok. Sort of like it in a way, like the massage ladies eating on the street, the informal little shrines with joss sticks and offerings that appear in city flowerpots, and the way, especially in the monsoon, it looks like something out of BladeRunner with insane gridlocked traffic, cables dangling everywhere, huge electric advertising signs and video screens that look as if you can read them, except they're not, they're in Thai, but in a font designed to look like western lettering.

Mostly we did tourist things and shopped, and ate out. One night we went to Cabbages and Condoms a restaurant run to help fund a project to improve the sexual health of the rural poor - which given Thailand's rate of HIV infection - is much needed. The food was superb, and as a nice touch to reinforce their message, rather than after dinner sweeties with your jasmine tea they give you a couple of condoms to pass on to someone who needs them.

I've written some other bits about our Bangkok experience and out Thailand trip in general, which I won't repeat here:

and after that it was time to go. We'd made the mistake of watching the BBC World news in the hotel so we knew about the volcanic ash causing flight disruptions but we checked the airline's website and Sydney airport's website and flights from Asia seemed largely unaffected, so we decided we were going and acted normally.

I'd like to say the airline acted normally, but they didn't - they managed to send our bags the scenic route via Chennai, but, to be fair they did get them back, without any tampering en route, within 36 hours.

So all good. And it's rekindled our lust for travel in Asia. So maybe we'll shelve Syria and try Vietnam, with perhaps a side trip to Luang Prabang, last visited in 2005, next time ...