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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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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.

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

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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.

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

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March in Laos: Along the Mekong in Huay Xai

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Unlike most travellers who were using Huay Xai as a transit point between Thailand and Laos, Siamesecat and I made our way to the border town for some monkey business. (More on that next time.) We spent a little time cooling our heels here at this tiny strip of huts along the Mekong. I wished “Visit Laos” year would come round more so they’d get a new sign. While the town appeared fairly nondescript, it was so laid back that it was almost worth the couple of days spent here.

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The streets were tidy and well-kept, lined by lots of pretty flowering shrubs.

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The main focus was of course the river. The slow boat from Luang Prabang ejected its passengers, grubby from the two-day journey, along Huay Xai’s banks. Everything in this town seemed to point to the river.

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Even the local temple, with its so-tacky-it’s-cool dragon balustrade, pointed to the river with the long flight of stairs up to the shrines themselves.

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The stairs undulated their way down to the river, reminding devotees returning from prayer exactly where the source of life was for this town.

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Strangely enough for a riverside town, this place was incredibly dusty. Even this cutie-pie of a dog had its fur messed up with brown. It lived at our guesthouse and at the end of our stay we still couldn’t figure out whether it was a white dog or a brown one.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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There was the usual scorpion one for virility…

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… 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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