Saturday, September 30, 2006

Anniversary weekend

You'd think we'd have had enough of Thai food for one year wouldn't you? Not a bit of it, in fact we discovered that the restaurant in the Intercontinental Hotel was nearing the end of it's month-long Thai Food Festival, so we decided to take a bunch of friends there on Wednesday last week to celebrate our anniversary. Don't forget, Wednesday is our Friday, so this dinner marked the beginning of a long and busy weekend.
So, we began on Wednesday evening with drinks at our house before going on to the restaurant.

Everyone brought gifts (in fact I put a notice up on the front gate, "No gift, No entry." - only kidding, but good idea for next time!) and we spent a very pleasant hour or so chatting and having our photos taken by Embassy Photographer Elliot Neal (with my new camera of course).

It's probably just as well you can't hear the joke!

Karen pretending to find Paul's jokes funny

Wish I knew what this conversation was about!

We get to the restaurant and it's quite quiet, with just a few other tables occupied. That's just as well though since we're making enough noise for all the others put together. We ask the waiter to order for us with a very sophisticated, "just bring us a bit of everything", and he does, and we eat it all eagerly. No alcohol available (this is Saudi after all), so we wash it all down with a couple of pitchers of "Saudi Champagne" - a non-alcoholic punch-like mixture that was nice and refreshing (ask me about this next time you see me). After dinner and Eric - the Hotel Manager and a friend of a friend - has provided a cake for us. We have our photo taken cutting the cake (timewarp!) and the ten of us tuck in, although we can only get through about half of it - it was huge! Over coffee the evaluation forms come out. This is a common practice here in restaurants: to hand out eval forms for you to fill in while your dinner goes down. Being the end of Thai Food month we're told that any completed forms will be entered into a prize draw, with the lucky winner getting a free holiday to Bangkok. ! "That's a bit late for us isn't it!" I quip, "we just got back from there a few weeks ago!"

Thursday night is quiz night at the Embassy's Wadi Club. Organised by the newly founded Royal Society of St. George, of which I am a dues-paying member and which Karen lovingly refers to as "Xenophobes 'R' Us", the quiz is very professionally prepared by husband and wife team Richard and Wendy. Karen and I take along our BMW Quiz Winners 2003 trophy to intimidate the opposition, although at only three inches high and made of gold-coloured plastic it's about as intimidating as a water pistol. A loud but very enjoyable night ensued, with Fish & Chips at the halfway point. Our team - The Propeller Heads (thanks to Pete and Deborah for permission to use THE name) came a very respectable 3rd. At least we beat The Teachers!

Friday, and - I thought I'd never be caught saying this - we're going camping in the desert. The following Saturday (our Monday) is Saudi National Day and a public holiday, so no work or school the next day means we can camp out and drive back home on Saturday morning. Now I'm no camping fan ordinarily and wouldn't be caught dead sleeping in a field back in England, but this is the desert after all and I figure this is something we should do at least once while we're here, just so we can say we've done it if for no other reason. A couple of days beforehand we'd raided Saco World - the local DIY/Leisure warehouse, and bought a four-man tent (flippin' small men!), sleeping bags and various other items of camping parerphenalia, including a rather natty light. It's a 4ft fluorescent tube in a rugged plastic casing, that stands on a rechargeable base made of yellow plastic. So basically you charge it up before you leave and you can plonk it anywhere - including on the sand - and get, and I quote from the box, "...up to 6 hours light from a single charge" - great!

So, mid-afternoon five families set off in a 4x4 convoy to seek a suitable desert campsite. Around two hours later we're bouncing along over the dunes, stopping a couple of times to dig/tow out cars that have got stuck in the sand.

You can't stop and ask for directions here!

Finally we find a good spot in the lee of a large sand dune and start to set up camp.
Be it ever so humble...

We're feeling quite smug because us newbies have our tent erected in about ten minutes flat (we did a dry run in the lounge the day before so as not to look like idiots when it mattered), but then we turn around and look up, jaws gaping, as we see for the first time the tents the others have put up. They make our four-man look decidedly weedy and I start to wish I'd gone straight to the "Real Men's" end of the tent shelf in Saco World.

Tent envy.

We then move up to the seating/dining area at the base of the dune to set up chairs, tables, food etc., while all the time I'm working out strategies to prevent the others mistaking our tent for the outhouse during the night.

Genuine laughter - must have been one of my jokes.

Everyone has a great evening: sitting, talking, laughing, eating, drinking. Adrian builds a fire (with logs he's brought with him), and the children sit round toasting marshmallows and throwing onto the fire anything they can lay their hands on (I am hugging my camera tightly to my chest).

"Not too many now Alix - you don't want to make yourself sick, do you?"

At one point I try to follow the children climbing up to the top of the dune - just to prove I can still do it I guess. I make it, but only just, and have to sit there gasping for breath for about ten minutes before I can even comtemplate stumbling back down.

Darkness falls, and it's time to get my new light out. Some of the others have brought gas lanterns; Ha! very quaint but no match for modern technology. I proudly carry my tube light up to the campsite and plonk it down on the sand next to the food table, to various, "Oh that's a good idea!"-type remarks. I flick the switch to the On position, there's a small flash, then nothing. I flick it again, and again - still dark. This goes on for about an hour: me flicking the switch and fiddling with all the sockets on the base, but no glow. Eventually Adrian and I get our tools out and take the thing apart, but still can't find the problem. I march it back up the slope and sling it unceremoniously in the back of the car and return to the warming glow of the gas lanterns, cursing Saco World under my breath and wondering where I've put the receipt.

Bedtime begins sporadically at around 11.30, with the hard core of us staying up until around 1.30, listening to Dark Side Of The Moon on my iPod and gazing up at the most spectacular starry sky I've ever seen - you can even see the Milky Way.

Shortly after we go to bed one of the children in another tent is sick all over herself, so Karen and a couple of other Mums are standing in the desert in the pitch blackness sponging her down with cold water, while I provide moral support from my warm sleeping bag.

I have a fitful night's sleep. The floor of the tent (the sand) is very hard and the foam mat under my sleeping bag is about as much use as a chocolate fireguard. I open my eyes to see light streaming in through the light-grey material of the tent (note: get a darker, thicker material next time), and emerge from the tent to find I'm the first up. Well, it is 5.30 in the morning!

Silence is golden!

I stroll around as the sun starts to peep over the top of the dunes, listening to the silence. It's not often you find yourself in a place that is totally silent, but when you do, the best thing to do is just listen to it. As time passes and others start to move about our thoughts turn to breakfast, and it's at that point where I really take in the scene and begin to see the magnitude of all the tidying up and packing away we've got to do before we can sit back in the sanctuary of our air-conditioned car.

The morning after the night before.

After breakfast and about an hour of packing, folding, rolling, and carrying, all the equipment is packed into the cars and it's time to bump and bounce our way back to the road, and home. Another child finds the rocking movements too much for his stomach to bear and is hurriedly ejected from the car before his breakfast makes a reappearance.

We get home at around 11am and, car still packed with dirty camping gear and full of sand, go straight to bed.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006


The Muslim holy month of Ramadan began here on September 23. I say "here", because the Islamic (Hijri) calendar is based on lunar months and each one starts on the new moon, so for this reason Ramadan starts at slightly different times depending on where you are in the world. Working to this calendar means that, for those of us using the Gregorian calendar, Muslim festivals such as Ramadan and the annual pilgrimage to Mecca (The Hajj) come around 11 or 12 days earlier each year.
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Hijri calendar and is the most sacred to Muslims, as it is believed to have been the time when God began revealing the Qu-ran to Mohammed. During Ramadan, Muslims are expected to fast from dawn to dusk, and what with Saudi Arabia being home to the Two Holy Mosques and the strictest Muslim country in the world, Ramadan traditions are strictly observed. Even non-Muslims are not permitted to eat, drink, or smoke in public during daylight hours, and anyone caught doing so would be arrested and may even risk deportation.

What does all this mean in terms of our daily lives and experience? Well, I guess it's a little early to say, but I have noticed a general quietening down of city hustle and bustle during the day, and when we're out we try to be even more mindful of Saudi culture and restrictions than we usually are. Shops' opening hours have always been hard to get used to here, closing as they do five times a day for prayers, but during Ramadan they all change again. Most shops will open from 12.30 to 4.30pm, then re-open at 8pm until around midnight or even 1am. This is because although people fast and are quiet during the day, in the evening there are celebrations and feasting, so the shopping malls and streets are exteremely busy at night. I haven't seen this myself yet as we haven't been out in town that late in the last few days, but we plan to soon.

Ramadan will finish this year on Oct 23, after which comes the festival of Eid Al Fitr, a public holiday lasting around three days. The Embassy will be closed during Eid so Karen gets those three days off, and we'll be taking a short break to Abu Dhabi.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

So far, so good.

I just know I'm going to regret saying this, but so far the new version of Blogger is working just fine. All my links moved across and the ClustrMap thingy still works too.

Couple of changes you'll notice:-
First, the new template and colour scheme. I fancied a change from the mainly-black look I had before and found this quite easy on the eye. I hope you like it too. If I get inundated with comments demanding a return of the old template I'll put it back, but otherwise it'll stay like this, at least for a while.
Second, I think the Comments link has changed. There's no pencil icon anymore, just a link saying "x comments" at the foot of each post. If you want to leave a comment just click the word "comments". Clicking the envelope icon lets you email a particular story to a friend.
Final - and my favourite - change I've noticed is the Archives section, where you now have a little triangle next to each month and the number of posts in the archive for that month in brackets. Just click the triangle and that month's archive will expand to show you all the post titles. Much easier now to browse back in time - if any of you other than me are that way inclined.

Let me know what you think of the new look.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Moving to new Blogger

Blogger is changing. They say they're providing lots of new features and also integrating with Google, the new owners. Right now the new Blogger is in beta and switching is optional, but it's only a matter of time before all Blogger users need to switch to the new system.

Being a bit of an early adopter I've decided to make the switch, so you can expect to see some changes to the blog over the next few days. I guess it's also possible that there'll be some teething troubles for a bit, so bear with me and if you see anything unusual it will probably be either a new Blogger feature I'm playing with (good), or a bug (bad).

I may also give the appearance a bit of a facelift and play around with new templates etc. Once it settles down I'll let you know.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

It was 20 years ago today...

... and on September 20, 1986, while Sergeant Pepper was teaching the band to play, Karen and I were tying the knot at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic church in Hayes, Middlesex. It was a lovely sunny, mild autumn day, and my brother Jes was Best Man, and Karen's sister Laura was one of the Bridesmaids. We had a lovely reception for around 120 guests at the Heathrow Ambassador Hotel (now the Quality Hotel), and next morning jetted off to Rhodes for our honeymoon; a holiday that I won on the TV game show Bob's Full House the previous month!

Left to right: My mum & dad Brian & Sheila, Me & Karen, Karen's mum Mary, and dad Stan (sadly no longer with us)

This is the only wedding photo we have with us here; Karen's mum is looking after the album for us while we're away. I can't believe it's been twenty years already; in one sense the time has flown by but at the same time it seems a lifetime ago. I'm struggling to remember what our lives were like before the children were born. I think I may still have the suit somewhere, although it would be a bit tight now - they shrink with age y'know!

Anyway, we'll be raising a glass or two of bubbly with friends this evening. If you find yourself with a drink in your hand, drink a toast to us!


It just struck me. Newcomers to my blog are probably wondering why the heck it's called Neal of Arabia when all I seem to do is bang on about Thailand. This is a temporary situation and will be resolved soon, as memories of our holiday fade and the reality of life in Riyadh returns to the foreground. For the time being, check back in the archives for some perspective. I wish Blogger had a feature where individual readers could re-order the entire blog in reverse, so that newcomers could start at the beginning; I'm sure it would make much more sense to them that way.

By the way, today is our 20th wedding anniversary and we're going out to dinner tonight to celebrate with some friends. Guess what's on the menu? THAI! :-)

Thailand - the last word: Phuket

Right, this is it. This is definitely, absolutely the last time I will go on about Thailand, promise. From now on it'll be back to normal with stories about Riyadh, honest.

We spent two weeks in Thailand but only three days in Bangkok. From there we flew to Phuket - a small island just off the coast but still part of Thailand, for eight days of chilling out at the Sheraton Grande, Laguna

A fabulous 5-star resort which was our base for most of the holiday, but I'm not going to go on at length about this leg of the trip because a) we spent most of the time lying on the beach or by the pool, and b) I think you've probably had enough of Thailand by now.

Instead, here are a few photos (did I tell you I have a new camera??)

The entrance to our hotel

Pool area just outside our villa

...where Elliot & Abigail spent most of their time!

The Wedding Chapel

The lagoon area

"let's go for a paddle!" - VERY strong waves here: one took my sunglasses right off my head!

Anna - the hotel elephant - likes a dip too.

Karen and Abigail getting ready for eating-eating.

Either my new camera's fantastic or I've got two good-looking kids!

Eating-eating, in style.

Day trip to some of the smaller islands.

First stop, limestone caves by canoe.

Next up, James Bond Island, where Man With The Golden Gun was filmed.

"Watch out 007!" Blofeld's army of henchwomen lie in wait around the corner to rob us of all our money.

Last stop: elephant park.

Day trip to Phuket Town. It should be called Scooterville.

...they're everywhere you look!

Two scooters attempting a pincer movement on this unsuspecting monk.

Scooterless ourselves, we had to walk everywhere: time for another foot massage!

The best food we ate on the entire holiday was here at this beachfront restaurant. Although Phuket was not a major victim the Tsunami wiped out several such places.

Footnote: If you ever get a chance to visit Thailand, grab it with both hands.

Bangkok: Coup!

Yes I know I promised that the last story would be my last posting about Bangkok, but how can I not mention the fact that, just a couple of weeks after our holiday, Thailand last night underwent a military coup and the Prime Minister was removed from power while out of the country visiting the United States.

From what I can gather it seems this caretaker Prime Minister Thaksin was hugely unpopular and suspected of numerous acts of corruption, and it also appears that the majority of Thai people support the action by the country's military chiefs.

Anyway, just want the record to show that I had nothing to do with it, and let's hope everything works out peacefully for this very special country and it's lovely people.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Bangkok: Temples

The final posting about Bangkok... promise!

Our shopping-shopping itch duly scratched, by Sunday we're in the mood to absorb some of the city's culture, history, and architecture, so we book ourselves on that afternoon's, “City & Temple Tour”. We report to Reception at the appointed hour to be met by Eddie – our tour guide. Eddie – like many of the Thais we met – spoke quite good English but with a very heavy accent that made it quite hard to understand him; not the best trait to have in a tour guide. We follow him to the lift (the hotel reception is on the 18th floor), and down on street level we board a waiting minibus with another couple already in it. They've been picked up already from another hotel and as we depart, Eddie explains that we need to pick up another passenger along the way.

45 minutes later and I'm beginning to realize that the “City” part of the “City & Temples Tour” is going to consist mainly of crawling through Bangkok's traffic trying to find our final passenger, but we do eventually pick her up – a Japanese lady travelling alone – and off we go to our first temple. Eddie explains that we'll be visiting three temples this afternoon, and along the way we'll also visit Chinatown and the Buddhist market, finishing off at a local jewellery factory: my credit card starts to throb at the very thought.
Of course I've got my new camera so a lot of what Eddie is saying is bouncing off me as I fiddle with the many knobs and buttons (and there ARE lots), in the back of the bus.

I was so engrossed in learning my way around the camera that I can't remember the name of the first temple we visited, but I can tell you it was quite small compared with what was to come later. This is home to the famous Gold Buddha: a statue some ten feet tall and made of five and half tons of solid gold. We join the throngs of other tourists in taking off our shoes before entering the chamber where the Gold Buddha sits, looking down serenely on us all,

and I take some comfort from the fact that I'm not the only one whose thirst for the perfect photograph is taking priority over historical and spiritual interest. Camera-pointing-dads are elbowing each other out of the way to get a shot of their family standing in front of the statue without any unfamiliar body parts spoiling the image. The photos taken, we move to the temple itself: a very peaceful and quiet place with another large Buddha at the pinnacle of a large shrine, looking down on the kneeling worshippers below. There are no benches or pews in the temple, just an open carpeted area where the barefooted worshipper kneels or sits to meditate.

Flowers and incense sticks all around help to create a serene, spiritual atmosphere that I find very calming until, as we leave the temple, Eddie chirps, “OK everyone ten minutes for shopping-shopping then back on the bus!”

The second temple is called Wat Po, wat being the Thai word for temple. Wat Po is a huge compound containing multiple temples and other religious buildings, all beautifully designed and set within exquisite landscaped gardens.

The largest of these temples contained the giant reclining Buddha which, at 45 metres long, completely fills the space so that there is just enough room for people to walk around it.

And apparently this is only the third-largest reclining Buddha in the country!

The final temple is just as breathtaking as those that have preceded it; this one being in the centre of a large garden complete with stream, wooden bridge, and ornate shrubs.

It is at the entrance to this third temple where the old woman selling live fish and toads (see pic in previous post) had her “pitch”.

During the tour I was overawed by the beauty and serenity of the temples and their surroundings, and I did learn that all Thai men have to spend some time as a monk as young adults. This could be as little as two weeks or as much as several years. I also learned that Buddha statues come in a variety of poses; each with it's own significance and meaning. One hand on the leg, pointing down, means “towards the Earth”, both hands folded on the lap is meditation, standing Buddha with one palm raised and forward means, “stop fighting”, and so on.

But that's all I learned I'm afraid, because I spent more time playing with my camera than listening to Eddie's lecture.