July in Vietnam: Going Where the Locals Go

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In spite of my past experience on the back of a motorbike, I decided that it would be better to sit on the back of a motorbike than try to cycle on my home. A splitting headache from a hangover sealed the deal. I was driven through beautifully green rice fields on the way to the Japanese bridge.

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It’s a beautiful bridge in the middle of nowhere, built in the Japanese style to give shelter to the locals in the heat of the day.

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I’m not sure how true it is but legend says that a childless Japanese woman left money for a bridge to be built in her memory so that people would pray to her in her afterlife. In such hot weather I guess more snoozing than praying is done here!

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I stopped for a light and very healthy lunch at a little place along the Perfume River. The rice pancakes stuffed with herbs and pork and washed down with plenty of cold weak tea did wonders to restore me for the rest of the afternoon. The bowl of bun thit nuong, thick rice noodles topped with the usual herbage and barbecued meat did the trick to keep me full till dinner.

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And then it was off to the Thien Mu Pagoda, famous mainly for being the monastery from which a certain special monk originated. It was on a lovely bend of the Perfume River and was quite pretty to look at.

Thien Mu Pagoda, from Wikipedia

Within, there were more halls with Fun with English signs. I have no idea what a “lish” is and how it could be beaten though.

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And here is the car of the monk who drove to Saigon, poured petrol on himself and set himself on fire while meditating. All this in protest of the American interference in South Vietnam. This image was supposedly broadcast all over Western media and played a pivotal role in the anti-war protests in America.

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And then calling it a day, I went to where the locals were – flying kites in the park.

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For dinner, I walked down to Dong Ba market and sat timidly down on the miniature plastic stools surrounding a chao long lady. The rice porridge was thin but the ingredients fresh. I thought I knew my pig parts, but this was a revelation. There was the usual meat, liver, small intestine and congealed blood cube but other stuff I couldn’t identify: large intestine cut longitudinally? strange sausage? bone marrow? Accompanied by basil and a squeeze of lemon, even the blood went down nicely. That hardly made a dent in stomach, so I switched sides and hefted myself 2 metres down to the next lady selling bun thit nuong, which is grilled pork over cold bun (thick rice noodles). Yummy and incredibly cheap (5000 dong approx S$0.45).

I was full by then started to walk back towards hotel. But a chicken noodle stall tempted me and I sat down to a delightful bowl of mung bean noodles (tanghoon) in chicken stock with generous lashings of chicken shreds. Ended up ODing on chilli. While Vietnamese food isn’t particularly spicy, even its “fiery” Central cuisine, I swear their chillies are the hottest in SE Asia. Even Thai chilli padi cannot beat them. There’s a very innocuous looking big yellow chilli that tricks you into thinking it’s going to taste sweet like yellow capsicum but boy does it pack a wallop. I made the very stupid mistake of rubbing my left eye after touching the chilli, ending up crying silently into food for 10 minutes.

(Sorry no photos, the lighting was too poor for the camera to work fine.)

Still, a good foodie end to a good chillout day.

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.

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

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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.

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Check out the detail on this side door.

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

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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.

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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.

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

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One new thing I learned was how alms were collected in some of these temples. Monks of course would do their roundsĀ  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 thatĀ  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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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June in Thailand: The Tiger Temple

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The real reason why I wanted to go to Kanchanaburi was to visit the Tiger Temple. I know it’s vaguely gratuitous to see wild tigers in captivity, but getting close to these beautiful kings of the jungle was an irresistible premise. Before they let you into the area, you’ll have to sign off the back of your ticket. Doesn’t help that it’s all in Thai. I’m assuming that the sign below in English was what it said, rather than something like were I to die from a tiger mauling, the temple would get all my worldly belongings.

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No matter, the Tiger Canyon beckoned.

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It was a bit of a walk inside and I was glad to have met Tom, who was on the same tour. His enthusiasm and anticipation rubbed off mine and we got well excited just getting down the path.

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Only to come to a long queue in front of the tigers. They were all chained and the yellow-shirted volunteers thronged them, making sure that both tigers and tourists alike behaved themselves. Here you could choose between simply having a picture taken with a tiger for a small fee or paying an exorbitant 1000 baht (approx S$40) to have a picture with the tiger’s head on your lap. Being on a tight budget, we both agreed that we’d go for the regular picture, at the same time looking longingly at those who were happy-snapping away at tiger on lap.

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Needless to say, these were majestic creatures and we were surprised by how placid they were. Tom struck up a conversation with an Australian volunteer and he explained to us that the tigers had gotten used to the monks and the volunteers. As long as no red was flashed before them and the weather remained hot, they were generally non-aggressive.

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Despite knowing all this, something inside me was ready to run should the worst happen. They’d get someone else who ran slower, not me.

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Soon after, the unbearable humidity finally turned into torrential rain and the tourists started scattering. We were upset that having queued so long we still hadn’t our turn, but the volunteers insisted that photo-taking was over and that it was time for the tigers to retire for the night. The same volunteer told us that as the weather got cooler with the rain, the tigers would start getting restless and that was when any kind of aggravation would be dangerous.

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True enough, we noticed them starting to get up and pace and gradually getting more agitated. Reluctantly, Tom and I started up the slope. We were debating what to do as we’d come this far but hadn’t a picture taken yet, quintessential tourists we were. Tom spoke glumly about having to come back up the next day on another tour. We decided to hang around for a while and take shelter from the pelting rain before deciding what to do.

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The rain cleared and the Australian volunteer came by again. He told us that we could hang around and wait till some other tigers came out for a walk and we could get our pictures then. Soon the scattered remnants of wet and rather bedraggled tourists formed a queue behind the monks and volunteers. We gave our cameras to the volunteers and were given strict instructions to keep walking and to stay behind the tiger’s head. Before I knew it, I was holding the tiger’s leash, wondering what on earth I was doing as I’d obviously be dragged along the muddy ground if the fella decided to break into a run. Too soon, I had to give up the leash to Tom behind me.

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Thank God for second chances. This time I was relaxed enough to get close and pet the scratchy coarse pelt and force a grin for the camera.

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Tom and I returned to Kanchanaburi damp and smelly yet jubilant over our tiger experience!