July in Vietnam: More Cham Ruins

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The Cham ruins in the outskirt of Quy Nhon were much more spectacular, particularly because they were set in the rather prettier countryside that the drab concrete town. It was a lovely time of year to visit as the padi fields were in the middle of the growing season, with pretty patchwork fields of alternating green and yellow.

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The towers were situated on a hilly outcrop overlooking the fields and a still stream that watered the area.

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The good thing about being in an untouristy area was that there weren’t any marked out areas at which to pay entrance fees; the bad thing about being in this untouristy area was that I really hadn’t a clue what I was looking at, just that they were ancient and it was remarkable that they’d been standing for so long.

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Still, it was a lovely walk up the hill where there really wasn’t anyone about and I could admire the large expanse of the country below.

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I liked the unique barrel-like roof put on a few of these towers and wondered the significance of these barrel-topped ones over the others.

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Some of them were already being restored, the sharp lines being made more pronounced with new brick.

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The great thing about this place was that I had free rein to walk around and it didn’t appear that the roof was going to tumble down on top of me at any moment.

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I took my time, enjoying the views inside and out.

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It was nice seeing how the place wasn’t totally restored yet there was still plenty of detail in the unrestored bits. I liked the humour of how the leering toothy face popped out of nowhere in the relief.

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There were also other reliefs that looked like table runners or part of a bookmark design. It’s funny how similar designs emerge time and again in different cultures.

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As I was all alone, it took  a bit of fiddling with the auto-timer on the camera to get a picture of sorts with the ruins.

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Well, not completely alone as I had the company of this little lizard with the rosy body.

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July in Vietnam: Quy Where?

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Quy Nhon (pronounced “wee nyon”) is a slightly industrial and not particularly pretty fishing town midway between Hoi An and my next stop, Mui Ne. It had charmless concrete buildings lining the street and not a great deal in its favour. Yet I was willing to stumble into town at 2am, taking the only available bus in. After a botched attempt at going to a place I’d booked ahead at (the people were fast asleep and no amount of doorbell ringing, door banging nor phone calling would wake them up to let me in), I managed to find a place at a hostel and not get ripped off or abandoned to die on the streets. It’s true, people did seem to get more hospitable as I went further south.

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The only interesting thing along the way to my destination was the way they sold goldfish and fighting fish in tightly shut plastic bags that sparkled in the sun. Pretty, but poor fish!

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Now the reason for going to Quy Nhon was to see the Cham ruins and how the city just built itself round them. It was so oddly out of sync how the concrete and electric wires stopped just shy of the ruins, still much inhabited by colonising plants and creepers.

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Inside one of these Cham towers was a lingam, still looking so little weathered that I wasn’t sure if it was a reconstruction or an original ruin. It was still used in active worship by the locals.

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While the main towers are further in the outskirts of the town, there was a Cham museum in the area, with rather interesting exhibits on show.

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Although the main building was closed, there were enough artifacts scattered in the courtyard to be worth a happy picture-taking session, just like this dog guarding the entrance. I really liked its toothy grimace and its pretty two-tiered decorative collar.

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Then there were these naga-like carvings that looked like they used to be part of a wall. It looked almost like a modern interpretation of Hindu art.

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And the same for this lion-like creature. I enjoyed the little details like the little whorls of hair on its head.

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The town has a nice beach with a great view of the curving bay.

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Too bad it wasn’t in any condition to swim in, the strong fishy smell put me off any notion of getting into my swim gear.

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You see, this town had part of its livelihood in fishing and there were plenty of pretty nets further out that somehow helped to net the fish. These nets were of course responsible for the stench.

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The fishermen went to and from the nets using cute little circular boats. It was a wonder they managed to get anywhere.

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It was lovely to be in this town with few tourists and no touts at all. I blended in fairly well with the locals (as long as I didn’t open my mouth) and enjoyed being on my own for a few days.

July in Vietnam: The Cham Ruins of My Son

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The Champa civilisation was one of the Indian-influenced civilisations in Southeast Asia, similar to those who built the ancient cities of Bagan, Ayuthaya, Angkor Wat and Borobudur. One reason to pass through Hoi An was to visit My Son (pronouced “mi sen”), part of this temple circuit. With this trip, I added the last scalp to my belt.

I booked with a friendly though somewhat scatterbrained travel agent a tour to My Son, Vietnam’s answer to Angkor Wat. After a false early morning start where they forgot about picking me up, I finally got on a tour out there in the later part of the morning. The entrance to the ruins was a lot newer than expected and a friendly American family helpfully snapped a picture of me next to this spanking new pile of stone.

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We were raring to go see the ruins, but not before admiring the local cows enjoying a good bit of rumination under the shade. The morning was progressing and it was starting to get mighty hot.

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True enough, lots of tourists were already out there, heavily armed with umbrellas. Still, they were very much dwarfed by the Cham ruins, rising up majestically and rather shabbily at the same time.

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I was struck by how much of the structures still remained. They survived years of weathering and wars and retained most of the main features of the buildings. The red brick still stood but the cement had long fallen off.

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The entrances were tall and thin, probably reflecting the girth but not height of the people then. I admired the intricate carvings on the eaves of the entrances.

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Too bad about the statues built into the walls. The details had pretty much been weathered off and the details of faces and dress could barely be made out.

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However, no amount of weathering could disguise what this was. This linga was the most graphic I’d seen in Southeast Asian temple sites. There were lots of giggling tourists wondering how on earth to pose with it.

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Much easier for the amateur photographer were the headless statues dotting the compound.

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There were also plenty of reliefs of lesser gods with heads.

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These were less interesting to the average tourist, but the unique features that seemed to me part-Indian and part-Balinese left me admiring them for quite a while.

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It was a pity that the wasn’t a great deal to the site as quite a lot of the ruins were really just that. Many of them were ruined not so much because of the passage of time but because of American bombings during the war. Sad indeed.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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But one of them was braver than the other…

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

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

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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…

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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

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

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