Sunday, 19 October 2014

Join the Ch@tter

For the past few weeks, I have been involved in a really innovative news project - namely, The Ch@tter - and am proud to say that we are now online and live - check it out here.

Also, please follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook.

And we are always looking for contributors, so please get in touch if you want to have your say.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Stirling Minds: Jock Scott (Entrepreneurial Focus)

This article was published in the 2014 edition of Stirling Minds, the Alumni magazine of the University of Stirling.

Jock Scott

BA Philosophy 1982
Mediator, Abune

"After 25 years in human resources, I wanted to use this experience to do something different.

I’m a bit of a change junkie and like the challenge of developing and maintaining relationships in the most difficult of circumstances.

I’m used to dealing with difficult organisational problems and understand the enormous pressures they put on both management and the individuals involved. And I have been involved in countless disputes.

So I trained as mediator.

Friday, 27 June 2014

The science event to go to: Cereals in Practice

As part of my current job at the lovely James Hutton Institute, a first class research centre where science involves tackling some of the world’s most challenging problems including the impact of climate change and threats to food and water security, I helped out at the Cereals in Practice event yesterday. It was held on a farm somewhere halfway between Dundee and Perth.

A lonely James Hutton flag - the visitors have yet to come

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Quick and simple Pad Thai

Ever since returning from my four week Thailand trip a month ago, I have been craving for Pad Thai, that amazing stir-fried noodle dish that's probably the most popular Thai dish for tourists and locals alike. Until now, I had had problems finding the necessary ingredients, but with two Chinese/Asian supermarkets opening in Stirling these past few months I managed to get it all together. I even found a ready made Pad Thai sauce, which actually tastes like the real thing.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

A desert stopover in Abu Dhabi

After four weeks in Thailand, it was time to fly home again. But as I had a layover time of 20 hours in Abu Dhabi, I decided to actually leave the airport and have a look at this part of the UAE. The stopover visa was free, and I paid for the one night hotel stay with vouchers I had won in a photography competition (finally found a use for them). Instead of walking through the city, I decided to experiende the Arabian desert with an evening safari.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Top 3 Cheap Thai massages in Thailand (Bangkok and Chiang Mai)

During my four weeks in Thailand, I enjoyed several Thai massages - at 150 Baht each, there was never any doubt about the necessity of it (funny how every time I pass a massage parlour, some part of my body cries out in pain). The following three are my absolute favourites - they have in common their cheap price, privacy curtains around the beds, a change of loose clothes, a painful but replacing massage and a generally nice atmosphere.

1. Samsen 4 Thai Massage, Bangkok
Five minutes walk from backpacker street Khao San Road,  this little massage salon is tucked away in Samsen Soi 4. From the outside,  it looks a little seedy,  but I was desperate for one last cheap massage on my last day of my Thailand trip. But once inside, several women fussed over me, washing away Bangkok's dirt and dust from my feet and offering me some truly delicious green tea. The massage took place on the second floor in a nice cool room with curtains around every bed. My masseuse was young but her grip was one of the strongest I have experienced.  She actually stood and walked on my thighs and managed to give me the best ever Thai massage.

2. Nanthana Massage, Moon Muang Soi 6, Chiang Mai
This is the only place I've had both a one hour and a two hour Thai massage. There's always a great atmosphere here, lots of laughing and making jokes. A footbath is included.

3. Ampai Beauty Salon, Moon Muang Soi 6, Chiang Mai
Just opposite of 2), this little salon looks very similar to its neighbour. I didn't get my feet washed here, but was offered some water.  The massage was just as good as the others.

For more about pampering in Chiang Mai, see this blog entry.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Pampering day in Chiang Mai

After lots of travelling and sightseeing during the past few days,  I felt it was time for a relaxation day.  And how better to relax than during a lovely massage - unless it's a Thai massage,  of course.  Ouch.  This was my second one in Chiang Mai, and after having a male masseur the last time, I thought it could only get less painful with an innocent looking Thai lady.  How very wrong I was. But after an hour of having my muscles kneaded, my tendons stretched and my bones snapped, the absence of pain was indeed very relaxing.
The next stop was for my stomach. A mango shake (it's very easy to get your 5 a day in a place where juices, lassis and shakes cost less than fifty cents) and heavenly Pad Thai later, I felt I needed some moving around.  Luckily,  there's always a temple or two that I haven't seen yet.
After at least an hour of exploring Chiang Mai's little alleys and hidden gems, I passed a hairdresser's. This had been on the list ever since I'd arrived and seen the local prices for a haircut. My hair was looking pretty horrid anyway, somehow the heat combined with the lack of hot showers made me look like the Shockheaded Peter. That's why I couldn't resist when I saw the pleasant little Mirror, Mirror salon and its prices (250 Baht for washing, cutting, drying, styling). At first, there was the hair washing. Bliss! Instead of sitting on a reclining but uncomfortable chair, here I lay on a cushioned table (picture will follow), with a leathery thing around my shoulders to prevent any part of my body but my head from getting wet. My hair was washed not once, not twice, but three times (the lady next to me got the same treatment, so I guess it was not due to my hair being especially unclean). The hairdresser was wearing some wooden rings on her fingers and knuckles,  with which she massaged my scalp - I felt very reminded of the earlier Thai massage,  except that this was even more painful. I was very glad that when she started to knead my temples, she used her bare fingers. When I was just beginning to think that there would be no skin left on my head, I was wrapped in a towel and sat on a chair.  There was not a lot of receiving what I wanted: I was asked, how much, I motioned, about four centimetres, and that was it. Somehow,  she only cut a little while the hair was still wet, then after drying it (ouch, the brush seemed to be made from steel), she snipped a bit there,  a bit on the other side, then it was done. Suddenly,  my hair was straight (and quite a bit shorter than what I had intended). And even after all my complaining here,  I actually like it.  And I'm thinking about going there just for the washing.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

The slow road to Thaton - with a longtail boat on the Mae Nam Kok

After spending five days with my sister in Mae Sai (I'm sure she'll post a blog entry about it soon), I arrived in Chiang Rai on Tuesday. I spent the entire day looking at different wats (temples), including the modern but beautiful White Temple, plus the very interesting Hilltribe Museum. In the evening,  I had a look around the night market,  where I met a German couple with which I shared a meal at one of the many small food stalls and many stories.
Having seen most of what Chiang Rai offers yesterday,  I decided to give the bus to Chiang Mai a miss and instead take the slow route by boat to Thaton,  a small village northwest from Chiang Rai. The longtail boat only leaves once a day at 10.30am from the pier 2-3 kilometres outside the city centre. Walking there took a little longer than I had thought it would, and I was surprised to find at least a dozen other Farangs waiting at the pier - on the internet it had sounded like very few ever took this blast in this direction (instead taking it downriver on the way from Chiang Mai). I paid the 350 Baht (a lot more than the bus fare,  but worth it) and soon after,  we were told to board the longtail boat.  There were no seats,  only small cushions,  and we half-lay, half-sat next to each other,  heads and feet alternating. It was not the most comfortable way to travel,  especially when trying to take pictures from this low position. Despite their picturesque look,  longtail boats are quite noisy. With twelve people,  the boat was full and lay deep in the water. From time to time,  especially when passing one of the many rapids,  water sprayed over us. Still,  after leaving the city behind,  we passed through some beautiful landscapes.
After about an hour,  we arrived in Ruammit, a Karen village. They are the only hill tribe that use elephants,  and these are waiting for us to feed them bananas and sugarcane pieces (great feeling to have an elephant nudge you with its trunk to get your attention). It was a very touristy place,  it's main purpose seemed to make money from selling souvenirs and elephant rides.
Our captain had given us ten minutes,  but when I returned to the boat,  my backpack had been loaded into another one. Only two more people (French, who seemed to assume that everyone spoke their language,  including the Thai captain) sat in this new blog at,  and this time, we had proper seats.  From now on,  the nice part of the journey started.  With so few people on board,  we were much faster (and drier) and could move a bit to take pictures.  From time to time,  we passed another village,  often hidden behind trees,  but during most of the journey,  there was nothing but jungle,  hills and the river.
The fresh, humid air carried the aromas of the jungle to us,  sweet and heavy smells of flowers with the occasional whiff of fishy odour. Even when nothing but forest surrounded us, sometimes there were subtle signs of human civilization: a few bamboo stalks bound together, signs carved in river stones,  a small track winding up a hill,  a golden chedi in the distance.
Even though the journey took a total of about four hours (it's a little less downstream), I never got bored and was almost disappointed when we reached the village ofThaton.
There, having found a cheap guest house (Naam Waan, 200 Baht/night), I began the long trek up Wat Thaton. The temple is special in that it stretches of over nine different levels,  each one higher than the next and each of them containing a shrine, Buddha statue,  stupa/chedi or prayer hall. Each level also offers breathtaking views of the plains of Thaton and the mountainous valleys towards Myanmar. According to Lonely Planet,  it's three kilometres from the base to the ninth level,  but because of the often very steep ascents it takes at least an hour to get to the top there.  But it's certainly worth it,  this is probably my favourite temple in Thailand so far. The ninth level is a beautiful white chedi, inside there are hundreds of Buddha statues and other works of Buddhist art. A silver ramp circles up and up, first to a second gallery,  then to an outside viewing platform.  I was lucky in that the sun was just setting,  rewarding me with great light for taking photographs. Up there,  I met a group of Thai soldiers and officers, but otherwise there were almost no people but monks around,  adding to the serene atmosphere. 
I'm thinking of climbing up there again tomorrow morning before soaking in the hot springs near Fang.
The top level chedi
View over Thaton

Saturday, 18 January 2014

The path to enlightment- 2 day meditation retreat in Chiang Mai

After visiting dozens of Wat (Buddhist temple) during the last few days,  I decided that it was now time to learn about this way of life (it's not actually a religion in the official sense as it doesn't have a deity that is revered). There are several Wat that offer meditation retreats with English instructions for farang, but the ones I wrote to were all full (the disadvantage of travelling during the peak tourist season), so instead of doing a 4 or 5 day retreat as intend I ended up mediating for only two days.
On Tuesday,  I made my way to Wat Suan Dok, about half an hour's walk from Chiang Mai's walled old city. The temple itself is worth a visit, but I went straight to the Monk Chat Office on the Wat grounds. Here,  they offer visitors the opportunity to talk to monks and learn more about Buddhism, Thai culture and whatever they might want to know. In return,  the monks get the chance to practice their English.
The same people also organise a weekly meditation retreat (a reservation is needed, but I only wrote to them two days in advance and that was no problem). While most other retreats are free or on a donation only basis,  this one charges 500 Baht to cover the costs of food,  accommodation and transport - those 500 Baht were a very worthy investment.
To take part, I first needed to change into loose, non-transparent white clothes (available for 300 Baht). Then, there was a short introductory lecture on Buddhism before we were taken to the meditation centre about 40 minutes outside of Chiang Mai. It's set close to a peaceful forest far away from the sounds of traffic and civilization; the perfect place to relax.

At first, our thight schedule did not seem all that relaxing,  but I soon found out that I rarely needed any breaks in between mediating,  chanting and more mediating. During the retreat,  we learned four different meditation postures: walking,  sitting,  standing and lying meditation. In the Vipassana tradition, while mediating one focuses on the present moment,  e.g. By concentrating on one's breath or other bodily sensations. Having practiced mindfulness and other relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), I did not find mediating for half an hour or so as difficult as some others. I was very surprised how much easier I found concentrating on nothing but one's breath at half past five in the morning.

Day 1: Tuesday 

01.00 p.m.     Meet at Monk Chat Office, Wat Suandok
01.30 p.m.     Introduction to Buddhism
                      and Meditation Practice
03.00 p.m.     Departure for the Meditation Training                         
04.00 p.m.     Meditation Practice
06.00 p.m.     Dinner
06.45 p.m.     Evening chanting
                      and meditation practice
09.30 p.m.     Bedtime

Day 2: Wednesday              

05.00 a.m.     Morning gong           
05.30 a.m.     Morning chanting,
                      exercise and meditation practice
07.00 a.m.     Alms offering and breakfast           
08.30 a.m.     Discussion           
10.00 a.m.     Break and meditation practice           
11.30 a.m.     Lunch time
01.00 p.m.     Meditation practice           
03.00 p.m.     Break and meditation practice

With each practice,  the meditation got a little easier.

There were about 25 of us at the retreat, with most European countries represented. Always two people were sharing one of the spacious and extremely clean rooms at the meditation centre. Vegetarian meals were included in the price.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Thailand tourist scam #1 or How to get a free sightseeing tour of Bangkok

"The palace is closed today. The inner city too,  because of the political protests. But don't worry,  there's a special offer from the Thai government today.  Take a government tuktuk (the yellow ones) and they will give you a tour of A, B, C,... For only 20 Baht. There's one here,  I'll write down where you want to go in Thai. "

And just like that,  I'm sitting in a tuktuk and the journey through Bangkok starts.  A tuktuk is a great way to travel,  it's fast, cheap, small enough to fit through the tightest spaces between other vehicles and the head wind is a wonderful change from the stuffy hot air in Thailand's capital.
The first Wat (temple) we stop at is quite small,  one golden Buddha statue and a large donation box. Outside,  several other tuktuks with tourists,  all seeming to wonder about the same thing: Why are we here and not in one of the much more impressive temples from the guidebook?
I take a few pictures,  then we're off to the so called Thai government factory. It turns out to be a small,  dark showroom selling tailor made suits.  While I try to explain to the sales assistant inside that I have no use for a suit right now,  and no,  I don't need any silk ties either - my driver is getting a fuel voucher outside. When I return,  he smiles.  At the next stop,  a tourist information centre (that doesn't even have a map of Bangkok,  but instead offers a lot of very expensive guided tours), he doesn't smile when I come out of the shop.  I wasn't in there long enough,  this time there was no commission for him. He tries it again, in another suit shop, this time I actually try on a kimono to spend more time in the shop,  but it's not enough. I insist that the next stop is the standing Buddha at Wat Intharawihan from my list.  He does get me there, and this time,  the Buddha is really quite amazing: With a height of 32m, he's higher than several houses and has very nicely painted toe nails. All around it were smaller Buddhas, and it took some time to look at them all. Around the corner,  I found a lovely golden stupa, where I managed to burn my feet (shoes are not allowse in temples) on the hot black marble floor.

When I returned to the place where the tuktuk had parked, it was no longer there.  I walked up and down the street but couldn't find it. While I was studying my map on a street corner, looking for a way back, I was told by a friendly guy who claimed he was a teacher that I was in the middle of nowhere. The man asked for paper to write down directions for a tuktuk in Thai. How very helpful,  I thought,  until I was sitting in the tuktuk and was told it was only 20 Baht to the 'Buddha mointain). Not again. Because I was a student,  the driver brought me to another 'tourist information' where they gave me 30% student discount (still highly over-priced). Of course,  I didn't buy anything. 

Luckily, he finally took me to the Golden Mount, a temple above an artificially created hill. You climb up many many stairs, passing below trees and by waterfalls and streams until you reach the temple at the top. From here,  there's an absolutely amazing view to be had. I especially liked seeing the many roofs of temples just next to Bangkok's modern skyline. I spent quite a lot of time on the 'mount', and was pleasantly surprised to find my tuktuk still standing where I left it and its driver. 

But it wasn't to last long.  He took me to another shopping place,  and again I refused to buy anything.  So he abandoned me at the next temple, just like the first one.  This time I was lucky (maybe the lucky Buddha in the first Wat helped) and found myself only half an hour's walk away (thank you, offline map app) from Khao San Road, Bangkok's ex-hippy-street and now tourist hotspot.

Having spent most of the day in tuktuks, I had some Pad Thai and a mango smoothie at a small cafe away from the crowds, then had a look around all the many stalls on and around Kao San Road. After some shopping (getting clothes better suited to the hot climate) I returned to my lovely, albeit slightly disorganised Phiman River View Guest House (they lost my room booking and i ended up in a dorm instead of a single room - although i am told that this is because the manager is currently on holiday), about ten minutes walk away from the crowds.  It's an amazing little place,  to get there you have to over wooden planks and walkways, and the dorm is very big and airy,  lots of space for everyone.  Now I'm sitting by the river,  munching on dotted pineapple slices and enjoying the view. It was a nice day,  and I certainly saw a lot more of Bangkok than planned.

Even though you could call this whole 20 Baht thing a scam,  I ended up getting a free tour of Bangkok's temples. No harm done, really (and thinking like that helps my bruised ego). By the way, I never found out whether the King's palace really had been closed. But I'm not going to try tomorrow,  after a day in Bangkok I already feel like leaving the city for more peaceful areas.

Ps. Photos will follow when I'm back at home,  I left my laptop at home and my tablet doesn't have a card reader...

Keep calm and leave Bangkok

On Friday I wrote about a tuktuk driver who assured me that the King's palace was closed.  On Saturday,  I found out that this was actually true - well,  almost.  It closed early because of some official business. As I thought that 500 baht were a little much for half an hour in the palace,  I walked on through valleys made of market stalls until I came to Wat Pho, hope of the amazingly giant reclining Buddha.  Even after the dozens of Buddhas I had seen the day before,  this one was special (pictures will follow once I can use my sister's computer in mae sai).
While walking back to my guest house, squeezing through the crowds of Khao San Road, I decided that I had enough of Bangkok.  Too many people,  too high temperatures,  and then the were the camps of the protestors  - crowds building sandbag walls, stalls selling whistles and tshirts, protest leaders holding speeches, and who seem to have succeeded with their plan to shut down the city today. Enough. Let's go up north.
The next morning,  I'm a headless chicken hurrying through dozens of travel agents,  trying to secure a ticket for the same day sleeper train to Chiang Mai. No success. Everywhere it's the same thing: no tickets,  the next train with free seats leaves in four days, but you can take the bus. No,  thanks.
Finally,  after at least two hours with no luck,  I find a little travel agency tucked away in a side alley (soi). The young man there has a "good friend" at the train station, who can get me a ticket (slightly more expensive than the usual rate) within 90 minutes. Two hours later, I have the ticket.  To use the time before my train leaves,  I take the river boat (nice and cool on the water) and then a ferry to Wat Arun on the other side of the River that splits Bangkok in halves.
Wat Arun is different from the many other wats not just in that it's the symbol of Thailand, but also in that you don't go inside the temple,  but climb it from the outside. The first level of this stupa-like spire is easily accessed by broad stairs,  but the higher you get,  the steeper the steps become.  To reach the highest point accessible to the public I grip the ropes on both sides and lift myself up each step,  never letting go of the ropes.  But the effort is worth it,  great views over Bangkok (and is fun watching the different techniques other people use to get up those stairs). The worst part is getting down,  although my going backwards attracts some laughs at first - but soon others copy me when they see that it's so much easier than climbing down while looking at the ground below.
I don't spend as much time at Wat Arun as I would have liked,  but I need to get to the airport.  So river boat back to my amazing Phiman River View Guest House, then a bus to the train station.  However,  after the bus needs 45 minutes to travel to a street I could have reached in no more than fifteen minutes on foot,  I am very happy to have a lot of time left before my train leaves. After 90 minutes on the bus,  I get off and walk the remaining two kilometres, easily overtaking the bus.
I still arrive early enough to deposit my backpack at the Left Luggage centre (all employees here are wearing protest tshirts) and walk around China town for a bit.
Then it's time to board the 19.35 sleeper train. I'm pleasantly surprised: in second class,  there are four people in each compartment,  one bed each (I chose a lower one because it has a little bit more space than the upper one) that even has curtains for a little more privacy and a reading light. Someone comes to take food orders;  an hour later,  my vegetarian menu is brought straight to the compartment (good quality,  and it's great to have three different dishes plus soup and drink to try in one go).
Soon after departure,  the train conductor comes to make our beds. This is amazing to watch,  he manages to put a sheet on the bed and a cover around the pillow within seconds (there are YouTube videos of this).
Soon, I fall asleep to the calming sounds and motions of the train.
The next morning,  I enjoy being able to watch the countryside rush (actually,  it creeps) by from my bed. The train is late (I am told you always need to add about two hours to the official timetable) and arrives around 12 instead of 9.30 am.
Now,  I'm in Chiang Mai - and very close to my sister.
More about to this lovely city soon,  once I've returned from mediating. Check this post again in a week or so and you will (hopefully) find some pictures.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

The day the aliens arrived in Mannheim

You might have heard of it. The big invasion has started. They have landed on earth. Using the frenzy and noise of the new year celebrations all over the world as cover, the aliens managed to land without being notices. Well, almost. Have a look at this video and you will see it - the TRUTH.

Here are some more photos of the alien invasion in the city of Mannheim. Don't be fooled by the people laughing and hugging - they just don't know. Yet.

Until then: A very HAPPY NEW YEAR to you all!