30 September 2013

Shopping in London & Catching the Train with Harry Potter

A foggy morning but not too cold
at the London Fair.
The first of the big antiques fairs for this trip was in London, and what a foggy old start it was in old London Town.  You have to be at this fair by 6am if you want any chance of a car park – many of you will be aware of how hard parking can be in London – but the gates don’t open until 6.30am.  So I collected a cup of tea and Doug had a bacon butty and we milled about with the always sizeable crowd until opening time.  The fog was thick and low so visibility at the outdoor stands was poor, but we groped our way through and came away with some really excellent purchases.
Maybe once in every four trips I find a beautiful typewriter with some serious age to it, and this was the trip for a good typewriter find.  I had seen a beautiful old typewriter at the Porte de Vanves markets in Paris, but at 1000 Euros it had to stay behind.  But here before me in London was another beautiful find, one I could afford, so I snapped it up.  Doug, who had to lug it back to the van, assures me that it weighs every bit of 10kg, so there will be no accidentally knocking this piece off the table.
Around 10am and still very foggy in
London.  You can just see the top of
a very large blue enamel lidded pot
that I bought.
I also found yet more lovely French enamelware, great glass, cool 1950s Midwinter Red Domino cups and saucers (so retro, and these days so hard to find), a very large and beautiful wooden chopping board – not one of the really giant Jamie Oliver boards I’m looking for, but fabulous enough to be scooped up by me.  I also found a good set of iron game hooks, which are just right for hanging copper saucepans, dried herbs, and various kitchen things on.  We have two sets of game hooks of our own, which will be set up in the larder in due course, and now we just have to decide which ones we’ll keep and which ones we’ll flog - always a nice position to be in.
I totally indulged myself at this fair, and bought the best ever French Art Deco outdoor metal table.  I plan to paint it black and use it as an indoor table, even though there is a hole in the table top for an umbrella.  I reckon it’s way too cool and stylish to be left outside.  It cost a lot, and the charming French dealer knew exactly what he had so he wasn’t very negotiable, but too bad because I had to have it.  Even as stock for the shop it would have been too expensive, let alone as stock for an antiques Fair in Nambour, but when you are buying for yourself you can set aside the usual it-won’t-remotely-make-a-profit concerns.

The Scottish Highlands offer no
end of beautiful views.
Then it was time to leave London and head up to Scotland, so we could take a trip on the Hogwarts Express (also known as The Jacobite steam train) on my birthday.  As we crossed the Scottish border I la-la-la-ed at the top of my lungs to the tune of Scotland the Brave in celebration of entering the country.  My sister and I have a tradition of la-la-la-ing the opening lines of Scotland the Brave whenever we recall our visit to Edinburgh together some years ago.  We walked arm-in-arm down the Royal Mile, la-la-la-ing to this tune, and passing Scottish strangers smiled at us but Doug was mortified and refused to walk with us.  Mind you, maybe the smiles from those passing Scottish strangers were of the be-polite-to-the-crazy-ladies type.

Anyway, I digress.  Six hours after leaving London we arrived in Dumbarton, just north of Glasgow and right on Loch Lomond.  I must say Glasgow was a bit of a surprise, with street after street of lovely stone Georgian buildings with enormously high ceilings and beautiful casement windows.  Very elegant.  Loch Lomond is huge and it’s hard to describe just how beautiful it is.  Our visit has reacquainted us with just how drop dead GOR-geous Scotland is and we’ve decided we need to find more excuses to come so far away from our normal buying routes.  Scotland is not good for antiques buying – way too expensive – but we should be able to come up with other reasons to visit.

Take off 'The Jacobite' and add 'Hogwart's
Express' and you've got yourself a
genuine movie prop.
After overnighting near Loch Lomond we headed up to Fort William early the next morning.  What a stunning drive it was – I think one of the most beautiful drives we’ve ever taken.  Every turn revealed yet another breathtaking view, with impossibly steep hills in layer upon layer upon layer, often with wildly tumbling brooks and waterfalls cascading down them.  You gained the distinct impression that this was an area rich in glaciers back in the day (like, back in the Ice Age).  And the colour palate was so beautiful and easy on the eye.  A soft grey filter highlights other colours nicely, and the overcast Scottish skies guaranteed a flattering grey filter.  Every conceivable shade of green was in sight, with russets, greys and ochres suddenly highlighted with unexpected splashes of purple heather, or deep pink flowering somethings, or even patches of orange foliage and stands of red rosehips and berries.  It all worked beautifully, and with the cold nip in the air it was invigorating and refreshing.

Our view over lunch - Isle of Eigg on the left, and
the tip of Muck on the right.
Shortly after arriving at Fort William it was time to board the train for Mallaig on the west coast.  This was the steam engine used in the Harry Potter movies, some carriages on the train are set up as they were in the movies and part of the route was filmed for the movies.  But beyond the movie connection, it is said to be the most beautiful steam train journey in the world.  So it draws train buffs as well as movie buffs as well as people who are just interested in undertaking a beautiful journey.  It was quite an unusual mix, and you could clearly identify the train spotters (dressed daggily) and the wannabe wizards (dressed younger but daggily).  The trip to Mallaig takes two hours, and at every crossing or vantage point along the way groups of muggles were out of their cars, waving wildly at us.  I thought this was supposed to be an invisible train? 

The harbour at Mallaig, on the west coast
of Scotland.
We had a delicious lunch of freshly caught langoustines at Mallaig, at a hotel overlooking the Inner Hebridian islands just offshore.  You know how Bonnie Prince Charles fled “over the sea to Skye”?  Let me tell you, Skye isn’t very far to flee.  The pursuing English could have chucked rocks and practically hit him.  Okay not quite, but Skye is surprisingly close to the mainland and I probably wouldn’t recommend it for fugitives who want to go into hiding these days.

Multiple muggles again waylaid the train and waved at us on the way back to Fort William.  Some people even waved at us from their lounge rooms!  Yes, the train track is very close to some homes.  You can train spot from your couch, if you live in the right spot.  “Right spot” being a relative term, of course.

The viaduct on the Fort William to Mallaig
steam train route.  This viaduct features in
Harry Potter's trip to school adventures.
Next Blog:  Walking along Hadrian’s Wall and considering how to fight off Scottish Barbarians while wearing only a skirt.

26 September 2013

Shopping in the Paris Sunshine

The French sure do love their chickens.
I loved this one as well, but sadly she
cost the same as a whole coop so
she had to stay laying eggs in France.
Is there anything better than good shopping in Paris on a beautiful day?  Yes, that’s a rhetorical question – I know there’s plenty of other great things to enjoy in life, but dropping by Paris to buy lovely things on a lovely day is on my Yes Do That list.
I felt under no pressure to buy a lot of things, because now we don’t have the shop we don’t need the same volume of stock.  And my buying is different now, because items that would have sold well in a retail environment don’t attract the same interest at antiques fairs.  It’s strange but true, and that’s reality so I have to shop accordingly.  Silly bloody Malcolm, I could have bought so many very fabulous things for him in the shop, if only he still wasn’t reportedly hiding under his bed (it must be getting pretty ripe under there by now, but stay and rot I say). 
So anyway, I was very aware that my whole approach to buying has had to change to suit my new demographic and that led to a slow start, while I considered and rejected things that would have been so good in the shop, but not right for antiques fairs.  But by the end of our trawl through the Markets we emerged with lovely enamelware, interesting vintage copper, lovely vintage tins (some of which are staying at my house), striking jewellery, some particularly nice coffee grinders, excellent vintage pictures and advertisements, and sundry other things. 

Prices at the Porte de Vanves Markets range from
Quelle Delusional through to OMG I Must Buy
That Right Now.  French dealers know they have
great things and aren't open to negotiation too
often, and yet we still got some excellent bargains.

I find I am drawn to vintage wire-ware, and my very first purchase was what looks like a giant wire egg basket.  There was some debate among the dealers as to whether it was for collecting escargot or salad.  It would be an awful lot of escargot to fill that basket, even by French standards, so I’m going with the collecting salad vegetables suggestion.  This piece may well stay at my house as well – the jury is still out on this one, but I’m leaning towards Keep It.
What I didn’t find, but particularly want, is more of the giant wooden chopping boards, that we have dubbed the Jamie Oliver boards because he uses them so often on his TV shows, often for serving food directly on to them.  But later in the trip I know I will catch up with a number of French dealers who often have this type of stock, so it’s not a lost cause yet.  While I wasn’t looking Doug bought several really quite old French school slates, which he thinks will work well in kitchens for shopping lists.  What a regular little stylist he’s become.
A small selection of my purchases, which I
grabbed a quick photo of before Doug scooped
them up into the van.  No time for taking
photos when I should be shopping til I fall
down dead, apparently.
As usual with the Porte de Vanves Markets, you’ve got to get there early enough that you need to have a torch with you, but then stay to do a few laps because different dealers unpack at different rates.  Seriously good things at seriously good prices tend to go early, but you can still pick up interesting and affordable stock if you hunt for a few hours. 
So then, well stocked and just a little bit sunburned, we headed off to Saumur in the western end of the Loire Valley, to position ourselves for an early start at the Montsoreau Puce.  This is a fabulous Puce, held only once a month and right on the banks of the Loire River, so it’s in a lovely location.  You need to be careful to not gawk at all the goodies too intently that you don’t watch where you’re going, though, because you can literally step into the river as there are no guard rails.  No Nanny State around here, nosiree – you are responsible for where your own gawking leads you.
I really liked this glass lidded jar, and if I had
been buying for the shop I would have
risked the expense because I think it would
have sold when properly displayed in the
shop.  I found other lovely things, though.
How I hate early starts, but if you want to get all civilized and have breakfast and then mosy on down to the Puce, you’ll find people like me were there several hours earlier and all the good things are gone.  So on Puce day you find only bakers and idiot antiques dealers up and about before it gets light. 
But!!!  Quelle Disaster!!!  When planning our itinerary I stupidly looked at the general Montsoreau website to look at market dates, rather than the specific Montsoreau Puce site.  So Madame Idiote noted the wrong market date.  The September Puce was on well before we even left Australia, and the next one isn’t for weeks.  So that was stupid.  Stupid in English, let alone French. 
So anyway, we walked some distance from the markets that were setting up (which had nothing of interest to us) and sat on the banks of the Loire River to watch the sun rise over the water.  It was quite warm, and very still and quiet, with a light mist rising off the river and lots of fish jumping.  Tiny furred water creatures, perhaps water voles, nosed around the nearby reeds, and water birds were just starting to call to each other.  I’ve always thought that if I won Lotto and had a home with a moving water view it would be the ocean, but large rivers have their own beauty, with lots going on if you just sit and watch. 
There is no shortage of great kitchenware at
the Porte de Vanves Markets, and we bought
a lot.
We decided to take a leisurely drive back to Dieppe, and discovered that a popular autumn Sunday morning practice throughout a great deal of the central western French countryside involves blasting small birds with shotguns.  There were hundreds of people out and about, with their dogs and their shotguns and their friends, and no small bird was going to go unslaughtered.  But having said that, we couldn’t see exactly the type of game they were after.  Every single shooting group was in a field of stubble barely inches tall, so we thought it must be quail.  But how is quail as a game dish after it’s been blasted with shotgun pellets?  There would be more lead than bird.  At any rate, we noted to ourselves that we would be polite at all times when travelling in this region in the future, given that every second person seems to own a shotgun. 
Vintage French papier mache is very finely
made and always beautiful.
We arrived back in Dieppe in time to enjoy a pleasant lunch and then spent some time taking in the sea front activities.  There is a large skate park on the sea front, and it was packed with boys and young men, but hardly a skateboard in sight.  Scooters are very much the stunt machine of choice among the cool dudes of Dieppe, and there were a few young men who were seriously skilled.  So after watching the scooter dudes and some kite fliers, we had a sorbet and took a long walk along the promenade.  The pebbled beach makes strolling along the seashore difficult, so most people stick to the promenade.  Then off into the old town to see if we could find a patisserie, and back to the hotel with our delicious desserts to settle in for the evening.

The shoes were the youngest things on this table
by about 100 years, but they were by far
the most expensive things there.  Vintage
fashion at the Porte de Vanves Markets is
beautiful but you pay top dollar.
Yet another early start was necessary in order to be on the 6am ferry to New Haven, but our itinerary shows that by Thursday we can have a more civilized wake up hour.  Apart from eliminating stupid mistakes from future trips, I am going to have to re-examine my apparent enthusiasm for early starts.  They seem fine in the planning phase, but the reality is a bit sucky.  Still, this is the sacrifice sometimes necessary to position ourselves to get into the fairs and markets early enough to find the good things.  How we suffer to bring you nice things.  Oh the pain, the pain.

25 September 2013

On The Road To Paris

A seaside apartment complex
in Dieppe.  Beautiful iron balconies
and giant window shutters.
Ah, what’s not to love about Paris?  The leaves have just started to adopt their rich autumn colours, the evening air has a nip about it, but the days have been warm and pleasant.

This time we approached Paris via Dieppe, after a comfortable cross-Channel ferry crossing.  The New Haven to Dieppe ferry has a good lounge area, with great big chairs to relax in, so we reclined and snoozed and read and chatted away the four hour trip.  Dieppe is a charming port town, and at this time of year there are deep-pink to wine-red hydrangeas everywhere.  But as with so many others in France, the beach at Dieppe has little to recommend it unless you can make yourself comfy on a bed of pebbles.  Still, the bracing sea air is good for you, and we took several turns around the old town at the harbour.

We called in to see St Jacques Church, the largest in Dieppe, and found a lovely stained glass window depicting an angel, and at either side of the altar were larger than life sized beautifully carved wooden angels.  French angels always look different to the English versions, and I must say I prefer them.  Very much larger wings, for one thing, they always have better hair styles, and their gowns tend to the classical Greek style, which is flattering to any figure.

Angel window in  St Jacques
Church, in Dieppe.

We stayed at a beachfront hotel overnight in Dieppe and set off for Paris the next day, stopping along the way to visit Serge, who is a great supplier of unusual things for us, particularly ecclesiastical.  Beautiful old religious pieces always sell well, and Serge often comes up with pretty amazing things for us.  This time I came away with six cross roads crosses, ranging from about 1.5m tall and so heavy I can hardly lift it, to a dinky and very pretty little one that reaches to perhaps my thigh.  He said he’d never had so many cross roads crosses at one time, and he had kept them in a secret part of his yard especially to show us before anyone else got to see them.  How nice was that?

And because we are such good customers, I was shown part of his secret stash in his house, and from there I emerged with two large brass altar candle sticks from an old church in Normandy, c1840.  They’re about two feet tall, and have beautiful detailing.  I’ve seen the like in expensive Parisian shops before, but never at prices I could afford, so I was very happy to get a matching pair in beautiful condition.  With a big, fat, creamy wax candle on each, they will look stunning.

One of the wooden angels on either
side of the altar in St Jacques Church.
And vintage French copper – did someone say vintage French copper?  Serge had vintage French copper, and plenty of it.   On this trip we are looking only for certain pieces, such as extra-extra large or extra-extra tiny saucepans, frying pans of any size (because they’re so hard to get) and anything outside the usual.  So it was a big tick on that front.  And yay that Serge had a heap of glass pate pots.  People have been asking me to find more glass pate pots for a very, very long time, but I have searched in vain.  Now I have 28 to bring home, which should satisfy everyone – including me, because it’s about time I kept a couple of these charming glass pots for myself – especially when I know exactly how hard they are to find.

Ratting about through Serge’s barns is as close as I ever come to recreating the American television show American Pickers.  Normally, climbing around, over and through a bunch of heavy stuff that might collapse on you at any second, and may or may not reveal treasure, is not my preferred method of shopping.  But you have to just plunge into it at Serge’s place, and I always find great stuff so I make an exception to my No Clamouring Rule for him.  I do like to find unexpected treasure, but I don’t normally have to hunt to quite the extent that I’m expected to at Serge’s.  Still, it’s good fun and we usually emerge grubby but triumphant.  This time we were particularly happy with our haul.

This is the neat barn at Serge's.
Then onwards to Paris.  Approaching the city from the west is one of the nicest routes, I think.  Versailles is only 20km west of Paris, and the countryside is surprisingly thickly forested from there right to the very outskirts of the city.  You leave the forest, cross the Seine, get your first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, and you know you’ve arrived.  And approaching from this direction means minimal time on the Peripherique – that infernally busy ring road around Paris – which has a lot to recommend it. 

Still, it’s always amazing to see how so much traffic can move so effectively in such close quarters on the Peripherique.  We saw a couple of fire engines approaching from the opposite direction, heading at high speed for an impenetrable wall of traffic.  Good luck getting through that any time soon, I commented, and then watched in amazement as cars magically found the room to part and the fire engines went thundering past.  And right behind them, the traffic reconverged into the impossibly narrow lanes, as if nothing had happened.  How did they do that?  Precise and courteous driving, that’s how.  Parisians tend to drive quite small cars, they all appear to know the exact dimensions of their cars and can manoeuvre accordingly, and they are (mostly) patient and courteous with each other in difficult driving conditions.  It’s pretty impressive, and something a few drivers in our neck of the woods could do with learning.

This is Serge's less neat barn.  You can get to
the other side, if you tread carefully.
A sneak peak at shopping in the Porte de Vanves
Markets in Paris on a fine autumn morning. 
More next Blog.
So having arrived safe and sound, we were well positioned for an early start at the Porte de Vanves Markets the next day.  As an aside, we have turned on the TV in France a few times now and even on Parisian TV we have yet to see a single bare bosom.  Pourquoi pas???  What has happened to the fine tradition of French costume dramas without the costumes, which we have come to expect on any channel at any time of the day?  Instead, we have seen rather a lot of advertisements showing damn fine, well chiselled young men in uniform, dashing about and shooting at anything that moves – it appears that the French Army (Armee de Terre) is in recruiting mode, if you’re interested.  No shortage of damn fine, well chiselled colleagues await you, apparently.
Next blog - shopping at the Porte de Vanves Markets.  Here's a spoiler:  Yay!




24 September 2013

What Have The Romans Ever Done For Us?

A lovely mosaic of a guard dog, excavated in
Pompeii.  What is assumed to be the body of this
very dog was found in the doorway of his house.
I’ve been offline for quite a few days, so I have a bit of making up to do – so you shall see some blogs in quick succession.  Don’t worry – all shorter than my Tiger Temple missive.  Probably.

So our second Play Day on this buying trip didn’t involve any buying as such.  Oh well, the actual work bit will start soon enough.  This day involved visiting the British Museum in London to view the exhibition Life & Death in Pompeii & Herculaneum.  Wow, that was good.  It wasn’t very well organised, with no clear direction for the very large crowd to move in so people tended to just scatter in all directions and sometimes it took a while to see different exhibits, but in the end we got to see everything.  If you are able to walk about the streets of Pompeii and Herculaneum – both of which are still being excavated – then they are now on my List of Places to Visit.

This is the guard dog, as he died.  There
were some very moving exhibits,
and this was certainly one.
My favourite pieces were a couple of really lovely mosaics.  Early in the exhibit you see the plaster cast of a dog that died guarding the doorway of his house, poor chook, and when that house was excavated the guard dog mosaic was uncovered in the hallway.  It’s a very simple but striking piece of art.  Later on you see an incredibly fine and detailed mosaic depicting sealife, which is probably the most detailed and intricate and beautiful mosaic I’ve ever seen.  Such a detailed image, all from eensy-weensy, teeny-tiny tiles of glass.  And it turns out that the Romans were really very fond of the God Bacchus, so there were frescos and mosaics of him and the … shall we say “energetic” … goings on of his followers all over both towns.  Bacchus favoured the panther as his animal companion, so there were also lots of figures and pictures of panthers, which were quite striking.

This mosaic was one of the finest I've
ever seen.  The artist was able to
produce an almost 3D effect,
such was their skill.
A very large number of bronze pots and figures have been excavated, and it was amazing to see the seriously fine detail that was achieved, so long ago.  And by now the patination on some of them – really thick blue and green verdigris – is gorgeous.  I can also tell my customers who have bought Roman glass and medical implements from me in the past that they were every bit as good as those exhibited at the British Museum.  Yay for great suppliers!  I was very chuffed that the pieces I offered for sale in the shop would have totally held their own in this major exhibition.

All in all, the exhibition was surprisingly comprehensive and gave a good insight into the lives of the people in both towns, displaying everything from the frescos in peoples’ homes to calcified loaves of bread and other food, from beautiful and intricate gold jewellery to things found in the drains. 

We did look at other
things while visiting
the British Museum.
This is the Holy Thorn
Reliquary, considered
to be one of the most
important exhibits in
the entire Museum.
These days it’s deemed acceptable to put on public display some pretty raunchy statues and figures, which until recently were kept in secret vaults and shown only in the most rare circumstances.  Scholars have now decided that the Romans’ attitude to sex and their sometimes confronting depictions of it, was entirely different to our modern sensibilities.  So nowadays, showing these statues isn’t deemed to be displaying pornography, it’s displaying Roman humour.  We, for example, tend to frown on things like sex with goats and don’t find it one bit hilarious.  But if you were a Roman you’d have been told to Lighten up, Augustus, because the statue was just a bit of a laugh.

On a more serious level, although many people escaped Vesuvius’ eruption so many more did not, and they were just people living their lives until a horrible disaster suddenly descended upon them.  The casts of the people and animals who had died there were really very moving.  Sometimes you could see the expression of terror on peoples’ faces, while others were huddled with their hands over their faces, desperately trying to breathe.  And all figures were bent into what is called the pugilist pose, like they’re about to begin boxing, because that is how the tendons in the human body contort in extreme heat.  Truly terrible, and yet fascinating to see what is still emerging from both towns as they are still under excavation.  It might be interesting to volunteer some time to one of the archaeological digs in progress – not as much fun as the Tiger Temple, but every bit as dirty and probably a little safer.

One of the helmets from the
Sutton Hoo Hoard, the most famous
early medieval treasure ever
Lots more has been happening - including shopping! - so more blogs coming in quick succession real soon.

18 September 2013

I'm Still Standing

Yeah she looks all cute and innocent now, but
soon she was to taste blood - human blood. 
After her bottle of milk, though -
she is a baby, afterall.
Ha!  Doug tried his damnest, but I have emerged from being mauled by tigers and almost drowned by elephants, and I’m still standing.  Oh yes, he’s going to have to try harder than that.  Perhaps he could try ninjas next year.  Mind you, he has pointed out that he still has another month to do me in, so I’m still on guard.

And yet he did meet with some measure of success, and the tradition of me getting mauled by wild animals while enjoying a birthday treat lives on.  So yes, I did get bitten by a tiger.  But on the arm and not the jugular, so really it barely counts.  
Tiger fang hole in my arm.  My assailant is
 sleeping off her attack at the top of the picture.
My assailant was only a little gel, but by golly even little tigers have bigger teeth than you might expect.  So now I have a fang-sized hole in my arm, which bled for a long time and has remained inflamed and sore for a while.  The wound wasn’t helped by being washed out in the quite grubby River Kwai when I was dumped into it by my elephant a few hours later, but I’m still alive so it’s all good.

The day started at 5am, when our driver Adun arrived to collect us.  As with all other drivers we’ve had in Bangkok, Adun ignored all speed limit signs and cheerfully blasted through the sound barrier for most of our two hour drive.  If there was a road rule that wasn’t horribly broken, it’s not one we know of.  So we made good time.  We picked up our guide Gung, and headed off to the bridge over the River Kwai. 

Bridge over the River Kwai.
It was lovely being there first thing in the morning, when there were only one or two other people about.  We walked across the Bridge and back, and read at the memorial about how many lives the Thai/Burma railway cost.  There is an ANZAC Day ceremony at Hellfire Pass each year, and although it takes a bit of getting to it might be a good thing to do.  A bit different from the big deal ceremonies held in Turkey and France.

After spending time at the Bridge, we headed off to the Tiger Temple.  On the way Adun showed us the road-side stall where he has breakfast each day, and we joined him.  Afterwards we wondered how sensible it was to turn up to the Tiger Temple smelling like barbequed pork, but it too late to worry about trifles like that.

A good back scratch soothes
the savage (baby) beast.
You start your visit by giving food to the monks who run the place.  You buy this food earlier at a 7-Eleven because the monks turn out to really like 7-Eleven dried noodles.  Then it’s off to see the moggies. 

We started off bottle feeding and playing with the smallest of the babies you’re allowed to handle.  They only had one little baby out, and she was seriously cute.  She was only two months old, but very feisty and certainly let you know how things were going to proceed.  She flat-out rejected a few people ahead of us who wanted cuddles, and did surprisingly loud growls and snarls and made it clear she wanted them to go away.  So the handlers told those people that the baby didn’t want them but they could look at her. 

But hello?  I have some experience handling little ratbags who think they rule the household.  So I sat with her, ignored her initial snarls telling me to sod off too, and instead gave her a solid back scratch and a big belly rub.  Works every time.  She threw herself on her back and invited a game that involved quite a lot of me getting my fingers chewed, although she was mostly gentle, and her getting lots of scratching all over.  Tigers can’t purr, but it wasn’t long before she was wriggling with pleasure.  Later we found out that tigers don’t like being touched gently because it’s like we feel when a fly lands on us, so you’ve got to be firm. 
Look at the size of those paws, and she's
only 2 months old.
Firm scratching is what the gang at home get, which they love, and it turns out to work on cats of all sizes. So that’s what the other visitors’ problem had been with her – they were just annoying her with their gentle patting. Tigers like it rough!
So then it was time to feed her. She wanted to sit on my lap facing me as I bottle-fed her, and there was a lot of kneading going on so my bosom got a bit of a work-out. You can see from the photo that her paws are almost as big as my hands – and don’t forget that she’s only two months old – so it was lucky she didn't flex her claws very much. 

After a good scratch it was time for a good feed.
Lucky those bosoms are real, or it would have
been Puncture City.

After feeding her we had the choice of having breakfast ourselves or more play with the baby. Was that even a choice?  Even if we hadn’t already had breakfast earlier with Adun, we were always going to choose to play with the tiger.  But boy oh boy, with a big fat belly full of milk this baby could fart for Thailand! Phew!!! The handlers clutched their noses and throats and quickly moved away to get some breakfast, leaving us to play alone, and we did have to hold our breath for a while. But after her feed and game she was ready for a snooze, so we moved on to our next charge.
With the second girl we started off face-
to-face, with her paw in my hand, but things got
very messy and pretty soon she wanted to
sit on my lap and spill milk all over me instead.

Our next gel was only slightly older – three months old - but a whole lot bigger.  Again, this girl wanted to sit on me as she was fed, and she was very sweet because she wanted to put her paw in my hand while she sucked on her bottle.  Again, after the meal came the games, but all my Ahhh-isn’t-she-a-little-angel delusions ended at this point.  This girl liked to play rough – real rough. 

 At around this age they apparently start to learn how to throw their weight around, and this girl was quickly learning how to be a Proper Tiger Wot Gets Her Way.

It was all good until the milk ran out.
You have to be bare foot in the temple, and my girl took quite an interest in my right big toe.  I quickly realised that there was no gentle chewing going on with this one, and I stood to lose my toe if she got a good grip on it.  So I tucked away my feet and she started on my hands.  She got a good lock on my watch and tried very hard to wrench it off my wrist, and it took a bit of extraction to get my hand free.  She wasn’t happy at not securing the watch, and took a chomp at my arm.  I wasn’t quick enough on that occasion, so she sunk a fang into my arm and hung on tight.  By golly that hurt, and I had to literally put my other hand around her snout to pull her jaws off me.

So then I had a canine hole in the top-side of my arm, and smaller wounds on the under-side where her lower teeth made entry.  It bled for some time and later became quite red and swollen, and I considered a tetanus shot when we got to the UK.  It was very sore to touch for a few days, but now it seems fine and hey I’m still here with my left arm intact (except with a fang-sized scar which Doug calls my Badge of Honour).

Then it was time to leave the Mad Mauler for a while, to get instruction on how to train the younger tigers to walk on leads.  It is important for them to learn to walk on leads and accept some control from the handlers before they get a whole lot bigger.

Will you walk?  No.
Will you walk?  No.
Will you walk?  No.
And guess who we got to train?  Yes, the Mad Mauler rejoined us for some shenanigans.   What a naughty girl she was!  Not all tigers grow up to be suitable to interact with the public, and I must say I’ve got my doubts about this girl.  But maybe they’re all naughty at that age – I know that with the smaller ratbags at my house they were all bitey and prone to jump on you and attack you when they were little, but they have all grown up to be nice natured pussycats.  So maybe the Mad Mauler will grow out of her chew-very-hard-on-the-visitors stage.

So anyway, when she had a leash put on her the Mad Mauler threw herself on the ground and refused to walk, just like any number of domestic cats who refuse to walk on a leash.  Coaxing and encouragement didn’t work, and in the end I was told to lift up her rear end by her tail and make her stand up.  So eventually she gave in, but with much bad grace that involved lots of baby roaring – which actually sounds cute at that age rather than intimidating - and we were off.

Once we got her on her feet
and moving, the Mad Mauler
got into the spirit of going for
a nice walk.
Once we got her going the walk was quite good fun, with our baby tiger wanting to be Alpha Baby Tiger, out in front.  The instructions are that when your tiger wants to walk, you walk.  When your tiger wants to run, you run.  And when your tiger wants to poop, you remember that cooperative training only goes so far.  You are meant to exert some control in not letting your little one stray too far from the path (where the deer and buffalo live), but the Mad Mauler showed no interest in her bovine neighbours – she likes only human blood.

After the walk we said goodbye to the little ones, and moved on to youngsters aged about a year old.  They’re still playful and feisty, but now big enough to inflict some serious damage so you can never turn your back on them.  They were all very good natured moggies, but giving them the tempting target of an untended back is just inviting the predator to re-emerge.  These ones we had to wash and feed, so we got pretty wet, but it was a lot of fun.  And just like the gang at home, when you feed them a big hunk of meat they like you to hold it for them while they give it a good chew with their back teeth.  Mind your fingers, though!

Freshly washed and time for a meal.  Just
make sure they don't mistake your fingers
for lunch.
These tigers then accompanied us to a play area, where you could choose to stay up on the dry ground or go down to their swimming pool.  Doug and I chose the water, and it was a good decision because tigers love water and it wasn’t long before they had all abandoned the sooky visitors who stayed on dry land and launched themselves into the pool.  Yep, got seriously drenched at that point.  We were handed toys at the end of long bamboo poles, and told that they love it when you tease them with the toys.

 Yeah, there’s an idea:  let’s tease a whole troupe of tigers who are bigger than Doug when they stand on their hind legs, and see what happens. 

Doug eventually learned that it's better to have
them flying through the air AWAY from you.
What happened was enormously good fun, with everyone shrieking and laughing and getting thoroughly wet, and tigers leaping everywhere and clearly having a good time as well.  But even in the midst of this mayhem, you still had to be mindful to never turn your back on any of them.  That wasn’t always easy, with tigers going everywhere, but the handlers were pretty switched on and kept track of all concerned.

So okay, then we were filthy, we were drenched, and we smelt like tiger food.  So it was off to meet the big boys, smelling oh-so-delicious.  Cypher is the second biggest tiger at the Tiger Temple, and at 250kg he is an impressive looking boy.  But he’s also a big teddy bear, very gentle and really sweet with the head handler – there was lots of head butting and choofing at each other.  We were allocated Cypher to walk down into a canyon with a big water hole at the bottom.  Every time Doug took his lead Cypher stopped to spray his territory, but I encouraged Doug to refrain from being too empathetic with his tiger.

Doug became very good at teasing the tigers.
My tiger is in the background, having a tug-of-
war with me over a captured toy.
We had some photos taken with Cypher reclining on us – he’s a big heavy boy when he’s leaning on you.  If you only saw this part of the day you might be inclined to believe the stories about the tigers being drugged, because he was so incredibly laid back about being handled so much.  But what you don’t see in the photos is that you are surrounded by about a dozen handlers and the head handler at this point, all standing in close attendance just in case Cypher decides to be not quite so laid back.
Walking Cypher down into the canyon.
I had just emerged somewhat scathed from my experience with the Mad Mauler, who at only three months old was able to inflict a solid bite.  And Cypher really is an enormous animal, so it was clear that if he decided to chomp on us there wouldn’t have been too much the handlers could do to stop him.  But he was a good boy, and after our photos he and the other bigger tigers were let loose into the swimming area in the bottom of the canyon.  We all had to stand in a cage – although it was pretty flimsy and wouldn’t have stopped a determined tiger for a second – so we were out of their way while they played.  I can tell you now that there is no prospect that Cypher or any other tiger was drugged – they leapt and ran about like idiots, dunking each other, wrestling, swimming, wildly jumping off rocks into the water and generally having a good time.

Cypher is one laid back pussycat.  Until he gets
challenged by an upstart.  No, Doug wasn't
the upstart.
Cypher came to sit at the feet of the head handler, and there was clearly a close connection and a lot of affection between them.  But suddenly an upstart youngster decided to come and challenge Cypher, and it was on.  It was amazing that the head keeper could tell from the look on the younger tiger’s face as he approached that he was planning on causing trouble, just like I can always tell when Caleb or Calypso is planning on being naughty by how intent their gaze becomes. 
Cypher giving his young rival a good smack.
The young upstart and Cypher both snarled and roared at each other, then stood on their back legs and exchanged blows, all within about 2 metres of us.  There were 17 visitors and we all stepped back as one – it was a totally involuntary reaction - while the head handler leapt towards them to sort it out.  In the face of the combined force of Cypher and the head handler the younger one backed down, but the handler told us that it wasn’t always possible for him to intervene.  A few months ago a female tiger died of her injuries after a big fight where the handler couldn’t intervene without the risk of being killed himself. 

Then time for a play in the water.
So things can become very serious very quickly, and you do have to remember that they are enormous carnivores who might give in to their natural instincts if the right circumstances present themselves.  But it’s not so bad, and the handlers bring out only the tigers they believe are fully comfortable with people – although you can’t stop them fighting among themselves if they feel like it.  You just have to remember to obey the rules about always walking behind your tiger’s shoulders – rather than putting your back in front of their faces – and being aware of where the other tigers are in relation to you and your tiger.

So this was officially The Best Play Day Ever, and I would love to do it again.  You can volunteer at the Tiger Temple for a month at a time, and I would also seriously consider doing that. 

All tuckered out
and time to be
walked home.
I do have questions about their unrestricted breeding program, because it does not involve wild release onto protected reserves.  I know they live a great deal longer in captivity, and there are plenty of tigers at the Temple that are judged unsuitable for human interaction so they get to just roam about loose in a special area.  Hence the occasional catastrophic fight between them, because they are not kept confined.  And captive breeding does keep the species viable, because so few are left in the wild.  And yet, I would like to see some type of wild release program, if it could be done with guaranteed protection from poachers.  But maybe that’s the problem – there is no guaranteed protection from poachers.  In any case, this is something I’d like better discussed in a serious way with visitors who have an interest in the species’ welfare and don’t just want to come and play.  Although coming to play has a great deal to recommend it.

Then it was off to the elephant camp a few kilometres away.  I’m afraid this is not something I would be prepared to recommend at all.  Apart from the fact that the activities are not as described on the website by a long shot, I really did not like the way the elephants were handled. 

Cat doesn't look so big
here, but it sure looked
like a long way down if
I toppled over her head,
which was a constant danger.
We had a sweet elephant called Cat, and rode her bareback to the river in order to give her a scrubbing.  Gung, our guide, said it was just like riding a horse bareback, but what kind of horses has she been riding?  That’s true only if your horse is three times as wide as the average horse.  So it was very difficult to stay balanced on Cat’s neck, and a very long way to the ground.

What I really objected to, though, was the use of sharp hooked goads to control and direct her.  You can talk at me until you’re blue in the face, but I do not accept that inflicting pain is an suitable training method.  There was a long-handled hooked goad, but also smaller hooks that fit over the handler’s fingers and which he inserted into her earholes to make her move in the direction he wanted.  Cat certainly responded promptly when she had a sharp hook put in her ear canal, and you can’t tell me that the skin inside an elephant’s ear is not as sensitive as any other critter’s. 

This was also a quite dangerous exercise because after Cat very kindly dumped us into the River Kwai so we could wash her, she then laid down so we could reach her back.  But the riverbed is steep and incredibly slippery, and the elephant really big, and as she laid down you had to really scramble to get out of her way or be crushed under her, under the water.  Riding her was an experience unlike any other I’d had – even more difficult than bareback camel riding - and she seemed to be a nice, placid girl.  But I would not do this again or recommend it to others simply because of the way she and her companions are handled.  Plenty of elephant facilities do not use hooked goads around the back of the ear or in the ear canal, and I would check about the training and control methods before I visited any other elephant camps.

You can see that the river bank is very steep and
muddy, and only a few steps away from us
Cat was in quite deep water that made getting
out of her way quite difficult.
But because the visit to the elephant camp was not as advertised it only lasted about an hour, so it was a small part of the day.  The Tiger Temple was seriously good, and being worked into the ground as a volunteer is now on my List of Things To Do.  Volunteers get two meals a day and eat whatever the monks eat, are provided with very basic bedding – BYO air mattress and mosquito netting seems to be a good idea – and get to work six days a week, with meditation breaks with the monks every day.  But what a great weight loss regime, plus you get to handle tigers of all sizes all the time. 

Back to the pool for one last shot of What
Happens when You Tease Tigers:  they
converge on you.  If you want a
hands-on, close encounter with these cats,
this is the place for you.  Just take it
seriously when you sign the indemnity forms.
I expect you also get to clean up your fair share of tiger poop as well, and with just over 100 tigers in residence that’s a lot of poop.  But you also get plenty of play and handling time.  When the Mad Mauler got me a good one the volunteers and handlers were nowhere in sight because they were too busy having breakfast – it’s first in first served so you have to get in quick or miss out.  So, as I said, a great weight loss regime if you prefer to play with the tigers instead.  One year, if we decide we have enough stock and don’t need to do a buying trip, I might substitute a volunteer month with the Tiger Temple instead.  Doug says he’ll stay home with our moggies, so I shall be looking for a companion tiger handler in due course.  Come on, what have you got to lose?  Other than your arm.

And one last look at the Mad Mauler,
all snuggled up and enjoying her bottle.
So anyway, after Day One of the trip I’m still standing.  I’m not sure what else Dougie can throw at me – I have survived the meercats on a previous trip, I have survived the tigers, I have survived the elephants.  I have even survived marauding giraffes on a previous trip, when one bit Doug on the bum instead of Doug’s intended target of me – that was bad giraffe training on Doug’s part, so sucked in.  But we have a cross-Channel ferry coming up, plus driving on the wrong side of the road in France, plus a long trip through remote Scottish highland territory, plus a trek along Hadrian’s Wall.  There are lots of opportunities coming up to do me in, he reckons.  But I say bring it, Dougie.