Bangkok: Chinatown, Wat Pho, and Ayutthaya

In Bangkok at the Lub-D Hostel in Silom area:

After a delicious morning cup of coffee and pastry (craving that!), Ty and I negotiated a price for a tuk-tuk out front of the hostel to take us to one of the ferry stops on Chao Praya River; he took us instead to a boat tour place riverside. Not wanting to pay for a private boat tour, just to get down-river to Wat Pho, we declined that option and, instead, decided to walk through Chinatown, have lunch, and then try again for a tuk-tuk to Wat Pho.

Most of the tuk-tuk drivers here do not want to take you where you want to go; what they want to do is get you to agree to a certain number of stops for shopping at “sponsors”, for which of course they get a kick-back. One guy told us that, because of Chinese New Year, Chinatown was “closed”. We got this same absurd story from another guy who wanted to take us somewhere in his taxi – ha. This scam is notorious here; wherever one might want to go, the driver assures her that “it’s closed today” and he will instead take one somewhere else “just as good” – which ends up being his brother-in-law’s noodle shop, his mother’s shoe store, etc, all “just as good” as the Grand Palace or Chinatown or Wat Pho … not. (I am reminded of the tour driver who took Tracey and I up to see the Getty Villa in LA; when we got there he said, “Just look at the gardens, the stuff inside’s not very good” … (!).

So, we wound up once again, just like the last time we were here, wandering around the 8th circle of Dante’s Hell in the vehicle engine and anonymous large machine part section of Chinatown, with nary a clothes or hair doo-dad or noodle shop in evidence.

As we passed through the cable link and rope section into the gem and mineral stalls, we realised that, yes, we were following our old path and, taking a right on a small alley, we at last emerged into Chinatown proper, complete with motorbikes, trucks, men with dolleys, bicycles, and pedestrians all competing for the same two inches of pavement space between the shops and stalls and street vendors.

The tables at every street food vendor station we saw were full; finally, we happened to be in the right place at the right time as two people vacated a tiny metal table and we grabbed two plastic ringside seats right next to the tiny alley passageway – huzzah! Two bowls of pork ball noodle soup later, we were off on a mission to find Wat Pho and finally got a tuk-tuk dude to agree to a reasonable price to take us there non-stop.

Just as we arrived, the heavens opened and it started pissing rain. This kept down the crowds a bit, but it was still packed in the main temple housing the gigantic 26 meter reclining gold Buddha, the main attraction at Wat Pho.

We wandered through the other satellite temples and pavilions, all containing multitudes of golden standing and reclining Buddhas, as well as stone statues of Chinese figures.

Wat Pho, right next to the Grand Palace (in which we spent a lot of time in 2009) is huge and beautiful, with a wealth of enormous tiled chedis as well as temple buildings. Our trip back by tuk-tuk was right in the middle of rush hour, a seething mass of humanity on wheels all trying to squeeze into the same tiny space of pavement between huge tour buses, our driver alternately cursing the crush and speeding down alleyways, zipping into impossibly small spaces, and generally wheeling his wagon around as if it were a Ferrari hot wheels car.

See a few more Bangkok pics here. See some pictures of the Grand Palace from our 2009 trip to Bangkok here.

Ayutthaya Historical City

Our second and final day in Bangkok was spent at Ayutthaya, the ruin site of the former capital of Siam, south of the city. I’d arranged for a car and driver to pick us up at 7:30 and, sure enough, he was there as, once again, it started to pour torrentially. Ty and I looked at one another and thought about cancelling but, hoping the rain would stop by the time we got out there, decided to go anyway. Halfway there, along the highway, seated white-knuckled in the back seat while our driver careened through the rush hour traffic at what I thought was break-neck speed, the rain stopped and by the time we reached Ayutthaya an hour later, it was hot and dry. From what is admittedly my ethnocentric perspective, many people here – like this guy – really do drive like maniacs, seemingly not caring about road conditions or visibility, just pedal to the metal, roar down the road and hope for the best. Interestingly, though, an editorial in the Bangkok Post today was based on the differing safety standards between western countries and Thailand; while noting that in the west we are obsessed with safety, the writer admonishes the Thai for being too indifferent to safety concerns and urges significant changes.

He dropped us off at a bike rental place, from which we obtained two old, crappy one speed bikes, and off we wheeled to the ruin site (which was not at all as I had imagined it). I thought Ayutthaya would be something like some of the ancient cities I’d seen in Turkey, or even like Angkor Thom on a smaller scale, ruins interspersed with trees and somewhat remote. Instead, the site is basically a park in the middle of a modern Thai city and a seemingly not very well cared for one (although this state may be the result of last year’s horrendous floods).

Ayutthaya was a kingdom in the Siamese empire from 1350 to 1767, when it was destroyed by the Burmese army, and the strongest power in the region for much of those years. Its kings were considered as the incarnation of various Hindu gods: Indra, Shiva or Vishnu (Rama).

From Wikipedia:

The king ultimately came to be recognized as the earthly incarnation of Shiva or Vishnu, and became the sacred object of politico-religious cult practices officiated over by royal court Brahmans, part of the Buddhist court retinue. In the Buddhist context, the devaraja (divine king) was a bodhisattva (an enlightened being who, out of compassion, forgoes nirvana in order to aid others). The belief in divine kingship prevailed into the eighteenth century, although by that time its religious implications had limited impact.

Our first stop was Wat Ratchaburanaj, with a very interesting large prang (Khmer-style stepped pagoda) surrounded by many large stupas, and fronted with the remains of a monastery. On the low walls surrounding these buildings, the remains of stone Buddhas sit; usually only the crossed legs and a single hand remain. Along with these, inukshuks have sprouted; Ty contributed his own small creation to those already there.

We were able to climb the steep stairs and enter the main pagoda in this complex, unlike the others, much to the annoyance of the pigeons who own the place now.We could also descend into the crypt via a steep set of stairs with helpful rope.

We also visited the ruin site of Wat Maha That, where a Buddha remains locked within the embrace of bodhi tree limbs and roots,

and the Ancient Palace, the grounds of the latter almost completely overgrown with uncut dry brush, looking as if no-one bothers to take care of it any more.  Throughout the park area, brick pathways wind around and through moats and pools, while the Chao Praya River runs around the entire ancient city site. We saw a few others on bikes and a few bus tour groups, but overall the place was pretty quiet, except for the bird song.

About the architecture:

“The prang was an important monument in Khmer and Ayutthaya architecture. Prangs can also be found in various forms in Sukhothai, Lopburi, Bangkok (Wat Arun). Sizes may vary, but usually the prangs measure between 15 and 40 meters in height, and resemble a towering corn-cob like structure. Prangs essentially represent Mount Meru. In Thailand Buddha relics were often housed in a vault in these structures, reflecting the belief that the Lord Buddha is a most significant being in having attained enlightenment and having shows the path to enlightenment to others.

In Khmer structures, of course, Hindu deities were housed in the center of the prang monument. The ‘cella’ or central (small) hall inside the prang, can be accessed through a porch, located in the east. With Thai (Sukhothai, Ayutthaya) architecture, the cella could often only be accessed by climbing stairs. Later on, the cella even disappeared in some prang structures, and was only suggested on the outside by niches (usually in the four important cardinal directions), where a Buddha image would be located. In Thai architecture, Garuda images were often present halfway [around] the prang in four positions. Later on, they were omitted from the structure.

Now, what are differences between Khmer and Thai prangs. Well, to start with, the materials used to construct them would often be different. Khmer structures often used sandstone and laterite, if available in the area. Ayutthaya prangs were mostly built with bricks, then covered with stucco. But the main visible difference is that Khmer built prangs taper off stepwise (in tiers of decreasing size). Ayutthaya prangs taper off gradually in a smooth way (without clearly visible steps)”. (http://www.thaiwebsites.com/prang.asp)

Along the way, Ty had two flat tires; the first time the back tire blew we walked the bikes back and got another one for him; the second time, I rode the flat-tired bike while he rode mine and we managed to limp along back to the store with them – not pleased. However, I guess we got what we paid for – they were $1.40 each for the day (none of the bikes here look like they’re maintained at all).

On the ride back into Bangkok our driver was a freak; obviously, he’d been off somewhere smoking, snorting, or shooting something, because he was tweaking – talking to himself the entire way back, constantly and agitatedly rubbing his knees, scratching himself, and rubbing his eyes. After just over an hour of watching him out of the corner of my eye to make sure he wasn’t going to go totally off the rails as we drove, I was delighted to say goodbye when we pulled up to the hostel – goodbye and good riddance.

See more pics here.

Grand Tour of temples around Angkor Thom, Cambodia

Ty and I, sans guide, rolled out in a tuk-tuk headed towards the “Lady Temple”, a building which our driver enthused was a must-see. When we reached Banteay Srey, the hometown of our driver, we stopped for a bit to meet his family and drink a young coconut with them.

The driver’s sister pointed out the billboard across the street showing a man in a car handing a mosquito net to a young person and explained to me that her sister had gone up into the mountains without a net and was now very sick. Another billboard across from this one showed the old and new Cambodias; the old on the right had Khmer Rouge men with guns, blood, and corpses in the street, while the new showed a well-dressed happy family, complete with puppy, in front of a shiny new school.

We visited five temples in our Grand Circuit, so named because of the distance to be travelled between them.

Banteay Srey (late 10th c Hindu) “loosely translates as ‘citadel of the women,’ but this is a modern appellation that probably refers to the delicate beauty of the carvings. Built at a time when the Khmer Empire was gaining significant power and territory, the temple was constructed by a Brahmin counselor under a powerful king. The walls are densely covered with some of the most beautiful, deep and intricate carvings of any Angkorian temple” (Lonely Planet account). The temple’s relatively small size, pink sandstone construction, delicate almost filigree-like carving, and ornate design give it a surreal “fairyland” ambiance.

East Mebon (late 10th c Hindu) is a large temple-mountain-like ruin, rising three levels and crowned by five towers, dedicated to Shiva.

It has beautiful, well-preserved elephants sculptures in each of the four corners, as well as two guardian lions at each of the four stair cases to the upper levels.

From the topmost level we had a beautiful view out over the green and lush countryside beyond, some of which is not yet dried out from the recent mega-floods.

Ta Som (late 12th c Hindu) is a small monastic complex with beautiful carvings, a large gate topped by a stone portrait head, and is much like a smaller version of Ta Prohm, the “Angelina Jolie Tomb Raider” temple (as all the guides and tuk tuk drivers call it).

Neak Pean (12th c Buddhist) is a small island temple, the central building of which sits at the axis of a cross or lotus pattern of eight pools. Originally known as Rajasri, Neak Pean took its modern appellation, which means ‘coiled serpents,’ from the encoiled nagas that encircled the temple.

The area around this temple is still flooded; we accessed it along a wooden causeway over a swamp boiling with mosquitos. After snapping a few pictures, we quickly made our way out again, me covered up with a sarong to avoid getting bitten.

Finally, saving the best for last, we visited the magnificent Preah Khan (late 12th c Buddhist), a huge complex which originally served as a Buddhist monastery and school, engaging over 1000 monks.

For a short period it was also the residence of King Jayavarman VII. The name means “sacred sword” and the temple is dedicated to the King’s father. We approached the temple along a grand boulevard and bridge lined with gods and demons struggling, like the earlier bridge we’d seen into Angkor Thom. Here only one head remains; the rest had all been eroded away.

Once inside we were greeted with grey, green, and red walls sculpted with bas reliefs of apsara, warriors, firefly-Tinker Bell-like women along the top edges of inside walls, and huge fig and silk-cotton trees growing out of and into the building’s stones.

Each of the large temples in Angkor Thom is surrounded with a moat, signifying the oceans of the world. The bridge which crosses each moat, surmounted by nagas, represents the “rainbow bridge” connecting the underworld, earth, and paradise. Some of the bridges, as noted, are decorated with duelling gods and demons. All the temples have bas relief carvings of apsara dancers, each with a different headdress, and contain large open dancing halls in which the women would perform dances dedicated to the gods.

The pyramidal temple structures have five levels, representing the five “worlds” of Hinduism. Many of the towers are topped by gigantic stone lotus blossoms which originally would have been used as fire basins, lit when the apsara danced. Although most of the temples were originally Hindu, all were later converted to Buddhist with the addition of Buddha statues and sculptures to the extant Hindu decoration.

I loved my time in Cambodia; the weather was great – hot and dry – and the people are warm. Evidence of Cambodia’s dark past was everywhere in the form of land mine victims begging on the streets and playing music in small bands on Pub Street and at the temples. The country is not as wealthy as neighboring Thailand or Vietnam and most of the people in Siem Reap’s surrounding countryside still live a very traditional village life. Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom are incredible; I’m already thinking about my next trip! And next time, I’ll be able to take it slow – five temples in one day doesn’t make for optimum viewing conditions …

See more pics here.

From Koh Samui to Siem Reap, Cambodia

Friends Barb and Christine arrived this week, fresh from an 8 day tour of Northern Thailand, to spend a couple of days with us at our house in Bang Po, located on Moo 6 in a lovely local community just one hundred meters across the road from our previous chalet. We spent three days exploring the beaches of Chaweng, Lamai and Bang Po, as well as the town of Nathon and the Hin Lad waterfall and temple.

The day we spent on Chaweng, the longest and most upscale beach on Koh Samui, was a bit overcast at first and the waves were fabulous crashing rollers. We spent the afternoon on brightly coloured loungers for which we paid a pretty penny in food and drink from an indifferent restaurant staff. Later, after a Thai massage, we had a tasty Thai supper at the Infinity Restaurant on one of Chaweng’s side streets. The next morning, after negotiating a price for our own song thaew taxi, we hit the sights on the west coast.

After spending some time at the forested Hin Lad temple, and examining the elephants at the riverside trekking station, one of whom looked blind, Lamai Beach called to us and we enjoyed watching the beautiful red retriever dog fetch water bottles thrown in the waves from the sand in front of the Bikini Bar.

Thursday morning Ty and I were up early for our transfer to the airport, courtesy of Dave, and, rather than spend the night in Bangkok as we had originally planned, we decided just to keep on trucking, flying in to Siem Reap, Cambodia, after changing our airline ticket at the Bangkok Air counter in the Suvarnabhumi Airport. After a short forty minute flight, a line-up at the visa on arrival counter where a fleet of uniformed personnel passed our passports from hand to hand down the line, and a taxi ride of twenty minutes, we were ensconced at the Pool and Palm Villa just outside the downtown area of Siem Reap.

The hotel grounds have suffered from the recent floods, having lost much of their grass, trees and flowers to the waters that inundated Cambodia in the fall, but the place is very nice. Two wooden Kmer-style buildings, with very high ceilings and beautiful wooden furniture and fittings, accommodate guests, with a large pool and poolside restaurant on the back part of the property. Also a victim of the floods, the roadway into Siem Reap is badly chewn up, with enormous potholes that crews are in the middle of trying to repair. Some low-lying areas in the countryside here are still a bit flooded and only now starting to dry out.

The area around Siem Reap is very flat, with lots of cabbage palms and other deciduous trees interspersed with flat patches of yellow grazing land and brilliant green rice fields. Very bony cattle, lots of dogs and puppies, pigs, and chickens abound here.

The commercial buildings in this area are vibrantly coloured, with the newer hotels and villas reminding me of the ones I saw in Turkey. Downtown Siem Reap (the name meaning “Siam [Thailand] Defeated”) is lovely, with blocks of French Colonial architecture in multi-coloured hues, an Old Market, complete with chicken carcasses, fish, fruit, and multitudes of shoes, and a Pub Street, packed out at night with revelers and beautifully lit up, full of restaurants and bars. After a mediocre dinner at the Khmer Family Restaurant, we headed down the street to a bar with a nice outdoor seating area and met Dennis, a guy from Montana who’s here working on a project with a local school.

Our second day saw us up and out the door on a tuk-tuk bound for Beng Mealea, a jungle Hindu temple 60 kilometers east of Siem Reap. The tuk-tuks here have a different style than those in Thailand; here they look like 19th century horse carriages, with padded seats and sometimes luxurious fabrics, except instead of the horse, a guy on a moped pulls the carriage. Along the way we passed more road crews trying to fix things up post-flood, guys on mopeds with two live hogs tied to the back of their seats, houses on stilts (both shacks and fancy new digs), schoolgirls with long black hair and floppy wide-brimmed hats on old-fashioned one speed bikes, and tiny tractors with huge loads of logs. Two hours later we bounced in to the temple compound, paid our $5 US each for the entry tickets, tried to avoid the crowds of children scampering around our feet, and were swept into the orbit of a blue-suited, white-hatted one-legged land mine victim who became our guide through the ruin site (see next post for Beng Mealea). See more pics of Koh Samui and Siem Reap here and here.

 

Trucking around Ao Nang

We’re ensconced here at the Sabai Mansion for the foreseeable future, or, at least likely until it’s time to head off to Kuala Lumpur. The weather’s ok, very variable, a result of the transition into the dry season. Most days we’ve had some rain, usually in the late afternoon or evening, and it’s been hot during the day. But the beautiful thing about this place is its good sized pool which I’ve taken advantage of every day.

Usually we have breakfast at the little poolside restaurant, surf the internet, read email, and then head down the hill to the beach. Our favorite spot is the Last Café, the last establishment on the beach right next to the huge limestone cliff that dominates this area.

This section of the beach is frequented by regulars, middle-aged and older European men in tiny speedos and their wives letting it all hang out in tiny bikinis – no body image problems here.

The contrast between these sand denizens and the vendors who ply the beach could not be more pronounced; the Thais are fully dressed, often with woolen hats, and laden with trinkets and gadgets for sale.

We see the same people each time we’re there – the flute dude, the wooden fruit bowl man, the smiling table cloth lady, the many old female shell animal sellers, the corn man, and the chicken grill woman, among a host of others. Usually we don’t buy anything but once and a while Ty succumbs to the charms of another toothless old woman and purchases one more tiny knic knac we don’t need.

Yesterday we happened to be hungry as the corn and chicken sellers appeared and flagged them down for a snack. Along with the food vendors came the blond beach dog, a cagey veteran who knows enough not to gobble down the bones he’s tossed all at once but hides them in the sand at the Last Café for later consumption. Our corns on the cob were delivered with a toothpick conveniently placed in them; to this innovation, Ty enthused: “Wow, this guy is really in front of the curve” (of corn-selling protocol, presumably).

We haven’t found a good Thai food restaurant here yet; we have, though, found really good Indian and passable pizza. For some unknown reason all the restaurants that offer Indian food are selling it at 20 or 30 percent off; possibly not many of the people who come here are familiar with Indian … we’ve also found a small sidewalk bar, the Chill Out, that serves cheap happy hour cocktails from whose premises we can watch unwary passing foot-draggers trip over the small concrete rise in the sidewalk, sometimes to great effect.

Today we flagged down a passing tuk-tuk and hired the driver for a two hour cruise around Ao Nang, stopping at the sea water fish farm research centre, the “Nemo Farm”, Shell Beach (sometimes called Gastropod Cemetery), and Ao-Nam Mao beach and pier, where long tail boats depart for Krabi and Railay. Tuk-tuks, motorcycles with covered sidecars, are great – I love riding in them because they can’t go very fast and there’s lots to see. The countryside around Ao Nang is quite lush but the villages seem strangely deserted – very few tourists about.

I enjoyed seeing all the fish at the Nemo Farm, including a manta ray, and all the beautiful tropical batfish, parrotfish and angelfish. The Lion Fish looked out at me balefully as I tried to get a good picture of him, none too pleased to find himself trapped in a small aquarium. This research centre is also raising quite a few turtles; the tiny ones seemed to really enjoy dunking their heads in the streams of water running into their pond.

We had been told by the proprietor of the Sabai Mansion that Shell Beach wasn’t really much but I did want to see it anyway, visualising in my mind vast quantities of gigantic fossilised snail shells.  Well, of course it was nothing like that, being instead a small area of what look like dozens of concrete slabs stacked on one another, but, in reality, are compressed layers of rock with billions of tiny shellfish about 40 million years old embedded in it. Apparently, this is the only such site in the world (at least as far as I could tell from the rather tortured English on the faded description sign).

The entrance fee for tourists is 200 Bht each (about $6.60), a shameful rip-off, but even though we only had 100 between the two of us, the guard impatiently waved us in anyway. I enjoyed watching the iridescent green crabs crawling on the surface of the shell slabs and battling one another over territory.

On our way back to Ao Nang we stopped at the Ao-Nam Mao pier and watched the longtail boats come and go for a while. Having grown tired of that, we headed back into town past the signs advertising villas for sale, and houses and shops for rent, all probably in place since before the economic crash of 2008, after which nothing much in the way of economic development seems to be happening in this area. We asked our driver to drop us off on the beach at the Last Fisherman restaurant and bar for a milkshake (great!) and nibblies, before trudging back up the hill to the Mansion and into the pool. Just another day here in Ao Nang …

See more photos here.