June in Thailand: Chiang Mai

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Chiang Mai is probably the #2 city after Bangkok to visit when you go to Thailand. The feel of the northern capital is completely different, there’s far less of the cosmopolitan bustle and it’s a lot more relaxed and chill. The temples here are also obviously of a different architectural style from the south, and seem to be made from more rustic looking materials. Despite being pretty much templed-out, I did a quick whirl of the temples in Chiang Mai, just to complete the circuit as far as possible.

The first stop was at one of the minor temples and I can’t remember the name. I liked the sweeping curve of the roof and the graceful arcs of the protective guardians sitting on top.


The Lanna-style temples are no less sumptuous and grand than those in the south, here evidenced by gold contrasted against the green background.


Then there was the beautiful Wat Chiang Mun, supposedly the oldest temple in Chiang Mai. The grand wooden structure was intricately carved all over and overlaid with gold leaf.


Check out the detail on this side door.


On the inside, some of the doors also had lovely designs, this time of gold on enamel.


And all this grandeur was to house a whole host of Buddha images, with the biggest one some thousand years old tafrom India, and the most revered one a tiny crystal Buddha image thought to have the power to bring rain.


On the outside of some of the temples were interesting gates made from clay. These were rather low and small, so only one person at a time could pass through stooping.


Again, I enjoyed how Thai craftsmen could made such beautiful works of art out of rustic materials.


One new thing I learned was how alms were collected in some of these temples. Monks of course would do their rounds  with their alms bowls in the morning to collect food from devotees. I knew that the monks were to accept whatever was given them and not to quibble or choose. Having all the food in one bowl meant that everything was mixed up and that  one bowl would hold sustenance for the day. In one of the temples I visited, the monks’ alms bowls were laid out on tables for devotees to offer whatever they wanted into whichever bowl they chose. It was somewhat like a lottery because the monks would accept whatever appeared in their own bowl. What a way to learn not to want!


Wat Chedi Luang was probably the most compelling temple in Chiang Mai. With its massive structure still very obvious, its former grandeur is still very apparent. It must have been even more magnificent before a 16th century earthquake took away much of the top part of the pagoda.


It had just been restored in the 1990s, although the damaged part had been retained, probably because after so many hundreds of years, they felt it should stay as it was.


I particularly liked the restored elephants sticking out from all four sides of the pagoda. It was grand and, to me, slightly absurd at the same time. It was a nice way to end the temple tour and get ready for the kitschier side of Chiang Mai.



June in Thailand: Sukhothai

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Sukhothai itself is so big that unless it’s a whirlwind tour, there’s no way of doing it in one day. Tom and I took two days to check out selected temples. Some beauties were in the central area, like this one so reminiscent of Angkor Wat.


It was fantastic how the structure still remained and the hedge and grass was so beautifully manicured. I’m not sure if it’s an accurate reconstruction but it sure does look grand this way!


Further along in the Sukhothai complex was this delightfully concealed Buddha image which you could only see through a slit in the surrounding wall. There were quite a few obstacles in the line of sight and only from certain special angles could I get a picture.


And only right at the base of the Buddha could I get a good shot at the entire statue. Here Tom and Erico show exactly how big the statue is.


As usual, the elegant tapered fingers of the Buddha are testament to the skill of the craftsmen who created it.


And here we are going up to the last part of complex. The clouds were gathering and Erico still gamely soldiered on. Tom and I met Erico the day before when he stopped us and asked for directions. We fell into conversation and bonded over food at the Sukhothai Food Festival. We continued on together for a few days after that. It was good fun to have another friend on the adventure!


This last stop was a rather dilapidated Buddha image on the top of the hill. The standing Buddha looked like it had not only seen better days, it’d probably seen much worse ones in storms too! Its charred -looking body made me think it’d been struck once too many times by lightning.


One of the Buddha images on its side was in slightly better shape. I like how the gilding on its lips still remained, making it look incongruously made up.


And that was us on the top of the hill before the storm broke: a Brazilian, a Brit and a Singaporean enjoying a Thai adventure.


We made it back to shelter just in time. The storm broke over us as we enjoyed our lunch of pad thai and my favourite pad kapow (stir-fried pork with holy basil). After the storm was done, we wandered around some more and enjoyed the lovely dusk over Sukhothai.


June in Thailand: Si Satchanalai’s Main Complex

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We followed the track from Chaliang to the main complex at Si Satchanalai, passing by some private houses and a gate post that stuck to the theme of the area.


Si Satchanalai was more park than ruin, with lovely paths leading here and there, plus some formidable flights of stairs that took so much out of us that we couldn’t do photos. At the top of one such hill was a temple ruin. The Buddha image looked like it used to be housed under a roof and still had pillars surrounding it. Even though there was a brick stairway leading up here, the trees growing thickly round made it feel like a chance finding.


Again, the Buddha image was much venerated despite its age and exposure to the elements. The cloth draping seemed to have been recently changed.


Further along from the first image, the trees thinned out somewhat and we came across a stupa and the forlorn remains of a little  temple.


There were some very badly weathered Buddha images, some still venerated fairly recently as seen from the scraps of faded now dun-coloured cloth still clinging on to the image.


Others were in even worse off shape and looked like they’d been in retirement for a hundred years at least.


We stopped for a while to marvel how such a temple with two stupas could be built at the top of the steep hill. It must have taken lots of hard labour for the stones to be carted up and assembled to form such grand structures.


Standing right at the top, we took in the lovely greenery below: of trees and the occasional stupa poking out in between. It was such a peaceful and serene sight.


Back on lower ground, there were much more extensive structures, this time more of a holy city than simple temple. This one below had a Buddha image flanked by great serpents, which I liked a lot. There was something somewhat contradictory about the serenity of Buddha and the venomous snake juxtaposed that appealed to me.


In these ruins, we noticed that new inhabitants had replaced the ancient humans. These brothers were rather shy.


But one of them was braver than the other…


… and came right up to check us out. He allowed Tom just one quick pat.


And one pat was all. They allowed us a celebrity photo of them posing nicely.


And then we were left to ponder the ancients on our own.

June in Thailand: Si Satchanalai’s Chaliang Complex

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Tom and I first went to Si Satchanalai, an immense park filled with ruins. It was just under an hours’ bus ride away from Sukhothai proper and had far fewer tourists than in Sukhothai. The bus dropped us at the Chaliang side, quite a distance away from the main complex. At first we wondered if we’d got the right place as there was only a small row of tourist stands lining a dirt track. Taking faith in the handwritten signs, we hopped across a little suspension bridge…


… and soon found ourselves facing the majestic Chaliang compound, complete with imposing tower.


The ancients who occupied this city must have been incredibly short, because we had to bend almost double to pass under the entrance beam. That, or they deliberately built it low so that people had to bow every time they entered the area.


A massive Buddha image sat at the foot of the tower. Weathered as it was with most of the gold leaf sheared off by the elements, it still retained much of its former grandeur.


Its long curved fingers still rested elegantly on its knee after all these years.


Thankfully, the structure was still sturdy enough for visitors to climb to the shrine within the tower. From afar, it looked like a fairly innocuous and easy climb up.


You’ll have second thoughts when you reach the base of the stairs though. It’s surprisingly steep and practically impossible if not for the modern railings at the side. I wonder how the ancients managed.


On the other side of the Chaliang complex were some beautifully carved towers. The sheer intricacy of the work was very impressive.


Despite all the erosion, lots of detail still remained and I had to zoom in quite a bit with the camera to capture some of the fine craftsmanship.


Elsewhere in the complex were Buddha images in different poses, here one rather graceful and dancer-like.


Here two in deep meditation. I thought it rather interesting that the two Buddha faces were of different styles. I wonder if they were erected in different periods.


And yet another one. This one rather oddly enclosed in thick walls.


It was a lovely start to Si Satchanalai, complete with good weather, and we headed along the pathway to the main complex.


June in Thailand: Minor Temples in Ayutthaya

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The rest of Ayutthaya was a blur of temple after temple. Some of them were still in use as places of worship such as the one here undergoing renovation works while still having devotees throng the area. The Buddha images were completely wrapped in orange gauze to protect them from the reno works. 


Bizarrely enough, some warranted even more protection, such as this shrink-wrapped Buddha image.


Tom and I got off the island and took a boat trip to the outer temple ruins where there were some pretty impressive pagodas…


… more ruins, this time of the same era of the ones on the island…


… and more weather-beaten Buddha images.


Tom and I were lucky to get this photo. The boat took us to the bank and we didn’t realise that the boat ride covered, well, only the boat road and not admission charges. Thankfully no one noticed us till we’d taken the picture. After being discovered, we had to take a circuitous route back to the boat to avoid paying the fees!


The last stop was the former Royal Palace, a lovely building quite austere in contrast with other royal palaces I’d seen.


Before going in to see the giant golden Buddha, we had to put our shoes in the lacks.


Only after noticing the lacks were we able to view the golden Buddha in all its majesty.


June in Thailand: Ayutthaya

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First on the temple circuit (in my books at least) was Ayutthaya. Tom and I decided to travel together up to Chiang Mai and we caught an uncomfortable minivan ride from Kanchanaburi up to Ayutthaya. It’s an ancient town situated pretty much within an island formed by the confluence of three rivers. Most of the ancient temples were on the island, but there were some interesting ones on the other side of the river.

Our first stop was on the island. Wat Phra Mahatat contains the most photographed trio of stupas in Ayutthaya, its graceful peaks still pointing straight up into the sky  after so many hundreds of years.


I like how the brown brick weathered off the top of the structures to reveal the grey material within. It made them look more austere and elegant.


There’s quite a lot more to see in the area. Even though most of the wats were in ruins, the Thai still venerated the Buddha images by placing orange sashes on them.


This particular image still retained its serene expression and quite a bit of detail despite being exposed to the elements for so long. Behind it were some tall stupas.


Coupled with the tall stupas were of course incredibly steep steps that even this local dog had to tread carefully down.


There were plenty more Buddha images all over, each in a unique pose.


I also spied among the ruins this odd Chinese-style Buddha that looked like it’d been planted there by a tourist.


It’s quite sad how a lot of the Buddha images were headless. It’s either because of natural weathering or more likely looters. These didn’t have orange sashes.


There was also a whole avenue of headless Buddhas, which was startling and strangely atmospheric in its sense of tragedy.


And then the crowning glory of the place: a Buddha statue grown over by a tree. For once the norm was reversed so that only the head could be seen.


It’s amazing how the tree roots simply took over yet left the head and face untouched.


June in Thailand: The Death Railway

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One of the main things to see in Kanchanaburi is the Death Railway. I took a day tour out that included the Death Railway and the Erawan Falls. Oddly enough, the first stop before seeing the Death Railway was a little pit stop in the middle of nowhere for tourists to feed wild monkeys. I found it a bit disturbing because it makes monkeys dependent on people for handouts and also quite aggressive to humans, particularly when they’re holding on to shiny things like chocolate bar wrappers and water bottles. I just stood aside while everyone else emptied their pockets of food and took opportunistic snaps of the monkeys including this one with the cute googly-eyed baby.


Onward to the Death Railway. Thousands of Allied POWs died during WWII to construct this railway to help the Japanese forces travel overland faster.


Despite its sad history, the scenery was lovely. The tracks followed the bend of the River Kwai.


Where we were dropped off, a little way beyond the station platform, was a small dark cave with with a Buddha image. Perhaps it was to provide peace to those who perished there.


The Death Railway is still an active train line now, with not just tourists using it. We clambered onto the old-school train to find seats among the locals. There were all sorts: school children on their way home, vendors lugging their wares, regular people on the commute.


And we pulled out of the platform into more of the verdant countryside.


It’s funny how tourists pretty much took over the train, everyone was leaning out the windows trying to get a good shot and also trying not to take pictures of the cameras.


I took the opposite tack and just went ahead to capture all the tourists doing their thing. It’s interesting how tourists only occupied the front few cars and became sparser and sparser down to the last car.


The view was a lot prettier than I expected, with the clouds against the pale blue and the trees silhouetted against the river and far hills.


It was such a lovely sight.


March in Laos: Up the Mekong

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Siamesecat and I took a trip up the Mekong to visit the Pak Ou caves, famous for its retired Buddha statues. We took one of these wooden boats and put-putted slowly up the river.


On the muddy banks grew the occasional pair of majestic banyans, roots entwined in a charming embrace.


We passed by typical idyllic scenes of daily life, here appearing to be quite authentic and not a show for the tourists.


Ours was the true blue experience as we pulled up alongside a petrol shop-boat to top up the fuel tank.


We stopped at a flight of cement stairs leading up to a little village that specialised in local whisky.


Glutinous rice whisky (lao lao) of all sorts of interesting flavours was laid out for sale.


There was the usual scorpion one for virility…


… and snake too for the same. There was also the less common centipede which was so big we wondered how it got stuffed into the bottle.


They gave out samples of the regular version. We tried out shots of the mild stuff that was quite pleasing as it was sweet and light, then progressed on to the full strength (40%) stuff that was smooth but not quite worth lugging around the country, especially considering the makeshift distillery it was made in.

We were somewhat taken aback when the villagers proudly showed us their distillery shack. This setup is it: three barrels, a wood stove and a bunch of earthenware jars. We soon moved swiftly on.


Spirits of another sort awaited us at the Pak Ou Caves where old Buddha statues were deconsecrated and put out to pasture. It was behind an amazing cliff face, looking rather like it came out from a movie set.


Inside were Buddha images in various stages of age and wear. Some didn’t look quite that old and others, well, had seen far better times.


There really were hundred and hundreds of these images. I wonder if anyone’s ever done a count.


There were statues in every nook and corner of the cave, all of them crowding even to the edges of the rock shelves. I think that was the most Buddha images I’ve ever seen in one place. Crazy stuff.


March in Laos: Luang Prabang Temples

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The main temples of Luang Prabang understandably line the main street. The crown jewel among the many wats here has to be Wat Xiang Thong. Its roofs reach slightly higher than the other wats and its decorations are slightly more elaborate. In the setting sun, this small temple complex was quite stunning.


The sumptuous gold leaf decorations were an elegant motif repeated all over the buildings here…


… even down to the tiniest side halls.


Gold leaf on red was the theme of the day. I wonder how much gold was plastered on the walls.


In the cast of the evening sun, it was a sight to behold.


However, for the most important temple of a country, Wat Xiang Thong was nonetheless humble in comparison. Some parts looked badly in need of restoration.


Other shrines had rather unique decorations, such as this quirky rendition of the tree of life which I rather enjoyed.



The rest of the temple complex had mainly the de rigueur gold carvings as decorations.


Some looked appropriately ancient…


… and others were simply stunning in the evening sun.


One of the most interesting of the shrines was this one with the simple paintings on a pink background. I like the naivety of the style, as if it had been painted by students from the local primary school.


Last of all, we ducked into the main temple hall to watch worshippers at prayer, all serenely decked out in traditional costume.


Here’s a little aside about Lao people: One thing I noticed about Luang Prabang was how friendly the locals were, in particular the monks. Outside one of the wats I was just minding my own business when a young monk struck up a conversation with me. He was very eager to practise his English and we had a little chat about our countries. I’m not sure about their taboos regarding  contacts between monks and women but they sure aren’t shy about conversations with foreign women!

March in Laos: A Stroll Through Luang Prabang

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Luang Prabang is a lovely little town quite deserving of its UNESCO World Heritage status. Despite the many tourists, it retains a peaceful atmosphere augmented by the frangipani trees lining the main street.


The architecture was fairly simple with graceful curves reaching to the sky.


We went into the Royal Palace Museum where the beautiful side halls were offset by coconut palms.


There was a rather strange Soviet-inspired statue of (most likely) King Sisavang Vong, the longest ruling monarch of Laos. In fact, his rule was so long that he was only surpassed by King Bhumibol of Thailand in 2001.


Pardon the poor photography, but I think you get the idea of the pretty vista leading up to the main hall.


The main reason to visit the museum is to see the Pha Bang, which is what Luang Prabang is named after. This Buddha image cast in gold and finished with precious stones is believed to protect the city and give legitimacy to the ruler in possession of it. Too bad no pictures were allowed. It was pretty though rather smaller than I expected.


The rest of the museum wasn’t particularly interesting bar a rather impressive sword and weapon display. I liked the ornate door panelling at some of the halls too.


Next, Siamese Cat and I climbed up to That Chomsi, the golden spire at the top of Luang Prabang hill. It was a pretty strenuous hike up the many stairs. Good thing there were lots of signs proclaiming the number of steps to the top.


The spires can be seen from most locations in the town. It’s especially pretty seeing it up close at the top.


The main reward for reaching the top was the fabulous view. You could see the settlement stretching out along the neatly laid roads…


… and the Mekong curving through the city on its way south.