Archive for the ‘Travel in Thailand’ Category
Sam Roi Yot, which translates as “Three Hundred Peaks” is a national park area about 4 hours drive south from Bangkok. It seemed like a pleasant place for a few days away from the big city – a place to breath in fresh air and relax – oh, and to eat incredibly well.
The drive down on Saturday morning was uneventful. Well, it was uneventful in the sense that I’m now so used to seeing Thai drivers taking break-taking risks with the lives of themselves and others that I’m pretty inured to the experience. Finding the hotel, however, proved a little problematical. I turned left after the statue of Jao Mae Guan Im (the Thai name for the female form of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara) as the hotel’s map indicated, but the hotel was nowhere in sight. Could there possibly be two statues of Jao Mae Guan Im on a single stretch of road? Anyway, pulling up the map on a friend’s mobile ‘phone, I was informed that the hotel was just over 11 km away, back the way I’d come. I followed the map, and when the positioning system said I was outside the hotel, there was … nothing. However, I had seen a group of beach front resorts across the bay, and headed for them.
On the hunt for the hotel, I passed a restaurant, Jim Daeng, which had been recommended for its seafood. To be honest, I might not have gone there if I’d translated the restaurant name beforehand. Daeng, I knew, means red, but Jim was unfamiliar to me. The dictionary told me it’s a slang term meaning a lady’s front bottom. Red Vagina? Not the most appetising name for a restaurant. And to be honest, I can’t think of any other restaurant named after a squish mitten – except possible Le Gavroche. I’m not sure what a Gavroche is, but it might be a lady bit. Anyway, the meal was excellent, with spicy stir fried prawns, spicier stir fried scallops, a rather herbal mixed seafood tom yam gung, and crab fried rice. And the location, just across the road from the beach, was great.
Having eventually found the hotel and settled in, we went for a walk along the beach front, which is pleasantly lined with pine trees. Such is the unpredictable nature of the weather at this time of year I really should have taken an umbrella. Such is life, it started to rain heavily as I was far away from the hotel. I tried sheltering under the awning of a beachside stall, but the rain just came through. I was fated to be soaked to the bone. When the rain stopped it left droplets of water on the pine needles which looked quite magical.
Sunday was set aside to explore the national park, with the usual racist nonsense of 40 Baht admission fee for Thais, and five times that amount for foreigners. After all, everybody knows that all foreigners are incredibly wealthy and so should be fleeced, even if they live here and pay more in taxes that the typical Thai. Anyway, putting aside the unpleasant feeling such blatant discrimination produces, I drove into the park to the foot of a mountain, Khao Daeng. The uphill struggle was hard going, but the view from the top was in part glorious, and in part dispiriting because it revealed the extent of the destruction of the coastal area in the name of shrimp farming.
There wasn’t a lot of wildlife visible in the park, though I did see a large monitor lizard scurry away in the distance, and there were a few monkeys.
Sunday lunch was at a well-known restaurant inside the park which specialises in seafood. Again, we ate very well, starting with betel leaves (I think), topped with an oyster, a little nam phrik pao (chilli jam), fried shallots and a whisper of dill. Things then got even better with steamed prawns accompanied by a rather strange, medicinal-tasting soup, and an enormous mud crab. This time I remembered to photograph the dishes.
The restaurant was next to a klong. The klong banks were alive with small crabs with red claws (and a few blue ones). There were also some mudskippers which hauled themselves onto the bank. If ever there were a fish so ugly that even its mother couldn’t love it…
After lunch I wanted to see Tam Phraya Nakhon – a much-photographed cave. I parked a couple or so kilometres away and we walked over the headland to the other side. That was pretty tiring, but nothing compared with the climb up the mountain to the cave. Rather inconveniently it had been built at the top of a tall mountain. The ascent took over an hour, and I was very hot and sweaty by the time I reached the cave, which isn’t really a cave, but rather two massive sinkholes with a connecting passage.
Various Thai kings have liked this place and visited on more than one occasion. King Rama V liked the place so much he had a sala built here.
There was also a sheet of stalactites.
The descent was almost as arduous as the ascent. I must have looked in a terrible state. Several people going in the opposite direction said “su, su” meaning “fight” or “struggle” to encourage me. One couple that didn’t speak to me, commented between themselves rather in disgust that my clothing was totally soaked through. I’d liked to have told them that I was probably the only person who had climbed two mountains and over the headland that day. For most of the visitors don’t walk across the headland, but take a boat to the foot of the mountain. Still, I survived, even if the next day I was barely able to move and there wasn’t a muscle in my body which wasn’t aching.
For the final morning we’d booked a boat trip to “Monkey Island” which, as its name suggests, is an island with monkeys. However, I did rather have misgivings about getting onto the boat when I saw that the sea was teaming with thousands of jellyfish. The trip to the island didn’t take long. The pilot steered the boat onto the shore, a small, gravelly beach, and then started cutting up bananas. As if by magic a hundred or so monkeys appeared from the undergrowth.
The young ones were particularly cute.
However, some of them seemed more like meercats.
I guess they do it for the enhanced TV ratings.
I had wondered how the monkeys (macaques, I think) survived on a small island with no source of fresh water. The pilot said that someone brought fresh water from the mainland for them.
However, the colony wasn’t really thriving, and the number of monkeys has gone down over the years.
Sometimes it’s a “you scratch my back” kind of world – at least for monkeys.
What happened next was perhaps one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. One monkey, and it was only one, started digging where the water lapped onto the beach.
He found a cockle which he then placed on a flat rock and took a smaller rock and used it to smash open the shell.
That moment alone made braving the jellyfish all worth it. He then gathered more cockles and crushed them, giving me a chance to try to get a photograph of the event.
So, at Sam Roi Yot a good time was had by all (apart from the cockles who didn’t particularly enjoy the experience).
As one moves from the flat central plains towards the East the landscape changes. The road climbs and craggy limestone hills jut from the ground. This makes the area perfect, it appears, for the cultivation of sunflowers. The area between Saraburi and Lopburi has many large fields and for the few brief weeks the flowers bloom each year, attracts hordes of domestic tourists.
The first I knew I was approaching a flowering field was crazy men in the road waving red flags. My initial thought that there were roadworks ahead, or a bad accident. But no. At the side of the road there were cleared fields where one could park, and beyond vast swathes of the yellow flowers right up to the edge of the hills beyond.
At the entrance to the flower fields there’s a small market selling sunflower-related knickknacks and local products such as wild honey, fruit wine, dried fruit and (of course) sunflower seeds.
In the fields people wander along the paths and into the blocks of sunflowers taking photos of their companions.
There are also a few elephants giving rides.
(The large metal sunflower on the right of the picture is to poke your head through to have your picture taken.)
Everyone seems to cheerful. It truly is a happy time and place.
Krabi, a province in the south of Thailand, is on the Andaman cost, an area famed for its beautiful sandy bays and a magnet for both foreign and domestic tourists alike. One of the most stunning parts is the Railay peninsula where the beaches are backed by towering limestone cliffs. There the beaches and the resorts that line them are accessible only by boat, so, after a late afternoon flight from Suvarnabhumi I found myself on a wooden boat crossing the open sea in the dark, guided only by the lights of distant villages.
The boat grounded itself on the gently sloping sands of Railway West, some metres offshore. A tractor then hauled a trailer next to the boat onto which my luggage was loaded and I leapt. The tractor then mounted the beach and a stepped ashore, feet still dry.
The resort I stayed in was nothing to write home about – not that that will stop me here. The bungalows were fairly basic, little more than an aircon’d box with bed and TV with an attached wetroom. The shower was feeble and everything a little chipped and faded. Still, it was clean and perfectly adequate.
Daylight unveiled the cliffs in their full awesomeness
and in their fantastical detail.
It also revealed the tiny islands that dot the bays.
There’s not a lot to do here – just a handful of minor attractions. One is Phra Nang’s cave, named after a legendary princess whose spirit inhabits this place. She has an interest in curiously-shaped wooden offerings.
Local fishermen, both Moslem and Buddhist come here to leave their carved oblations. Similarly shaped rocks attract similar attentions.
Another attraction is a pool on top of one of the cliffs. To get here one climbs almost vertically up a craggy slope, making toeholds of exposed roots and hauling oneself up on strategically-placed knotted ropes. (Yes, that improbable scrabble is the foot of the path on the left.)
300 metres or so later – vertically – one reaches the top where a path to the right leads towards the pool. A similar vertical descent becomes increasingly treacherously slippery with mud. Eventually one gets a view of the pool through a cleft in the rock. (Really not worth the effort – hence no photo.) The pool itself, so it seems, would only be accessible with mountaineering equipment.
I hauled myself back up to the top and followed a path which led to a viewpoint from which one could see the Railay peninsula and the bays on both sides.
The climb down was almost as arduous as the ascent. However, I made it with all limbs and skull intact. Frankly, this was one of the more foolhardy things I’ve done in my life.
A morning walk on the beach showed the place to be alive with thousands of tiny crabs – no lager than a fingernail. As one approached they scuttled for the nearest hole in the sand. The occasional crab, unable to find a vacant hole, would hare off at great speed, sideways, of course, ultimately to take refuge in the sea.
A less vibrant creature on the foreshore was this dead puffer fish.
Crab, along with other seafood – features prominently in the menus of the local restaurants, all of which seem to offer the same range of central Thai dishes and farang favourites (burger & chips, pizza or English fish & chips, anyone?) – all of which are prepared to the same miserably low standard. Doubtless the backpacker crowd and package tourists think they are eating authentic Thai food, and no less doubtless consider it both exotic and delicious. I found it simply incompetent and showing utter contempt for the clientèle.
One day I took a trip back to the “mainland”. Here there are distinct areas for farangs, with their bars, pizzerias, Indian restaurants and places all claiming (fraudulently, I’m sure) to serve the best, authentic Thai food. The Thai areas have large, swanky resorts and simple restaurants. I had lunch at one such place that had been recommended. From the outside it looks like a tiny shop, but beyond is a massive restaurant with trays of various sea foods on ice. This being lunchtime there was only a handful of customers, and service was prompt. I greatly enjoyed clams stir-fried with green peppercorns, garlic and soy sauce, small conchs steamed with lemon grass, and a very spicy sour orange curry (more like a soup, really) with slices of coconut shoots and slabs of fish. It’s in a totally different league from the food available in the areas catering for foreigners.
It was in the restaurant that I saw one of only two signs that this whole area had been devastated by the Asian tsunami on Boxing Day, 2004; here were photos on the wall showing the wreckage of the restaurant’s former incarnation.
The other sign was a memorial, with a small, touching sculpture by Louise Bourgeois of a pair of praying hands in the embrace of a similar pair of hands, arising out of a turbulent sea.
It’s entitled “Hold Me Close”.
Requiescant in Pace.
Chiang Mai is very much the spiritual capital of Thailand. There are many highly revered temples, and the atmosphere is a little more spiritual, and the way of life a little more relaxed. Thai people here even speak more slowly than in Bangkok.
I suspect that the way of life is somewhat changing under the massive influx of tourists here. Great swathes of the city are now given over to the tourist industry, and you can find restaurants reflecting almost any kind of cuisine from Mexican to Indian to Lebanese. Fortunately, you can still find good Thai cuisine, too, if you know where to look.
Anyway, on my final day in Chiang Mai I summoned up the strength to visit four of the city’s famous temples.
Wat Chiang Man
Wat Chiang Man is thought to be the oldest surviving temple in the city, though the exact date of its founding isn’t known. It has an impressive gilded exterior
And charming gilt lacquer window shutters
Wat Phan Tao
This little-touristed temple doesn’t have the flashy gilt of many of the temples around here; it’s a much simpler affair made of teak. The walls and windows have a simple, rustic charm:
Inside the viharn you can see the 24 large teak trunks which support the building and the temple’s main altar. It’s a simple place with a crudely-tiled floor.
Wat Chedi Luang
However, the temple is dominated by a massive chedi, partly in ruins, dating from 1441 (i.e. predating any surviving temple in Chiang Mai). The chedi has naga staircases on each side, and supporting elephants – though only one is original. The rest are modern cement reproductions.
One of this temple’s claims to fame is that it used to house the Emerald Buddha figure which now lives in at Royal temple, Wat Phra Kaew where the figure is given a change of costume three times a year at the change of each of Thailand’s three seasons. The costume is traditionally done by the King, but given the current King’s advancing years his son now performs the ceremony on his behalf.
Wat Phra Singh
Wat Phra Sing is another temple with an ornate gilded façade.
The interior has a large Buddha figure.
The journey from Nan to Chiang Rai was a gruelling one. The one bus a day leaves from Nan at 9:00 prompt, and then spends the next three hours following the tight-twisting road through forest-clad mountainside. In several places half the road had simply fallen away into a ravine, and in others the road was reduced to rutted rubble where streams crossed its path.
It was strange to think that in this, the 21st century, there are still people living almost naked in the forest to either side of me, building simple shacks covered with leaves; as the leaves turn yellow they move on.
The second half of the 6 hour journey was less arduous, through rice fields and dusty little towns.
In 1881 Robert Louis Stevenson wrote that it was better to travel hopefully than to arrive. On this occasion he was right. Getting off the bus I was surrounded by an aggressive bunch of touts promoting their respective guest houses and treks. (Intruding on the homes of various ethnic minority groups is big business here – not that the minorities benefit at all from the visiting grungy backpackers.)
On the streets there were more farangs than Thais. It felt as if I was in an horrible ghetto full of tattooed skinheads, obese Americans and scary-haired punks.
Still, in two days I’ll be moving on.
The temples here are nothing to write home about. In fact, I took but a single photograph during my sojourn, at Wat Phra Singh. It’s below.
Not really sure why I bothered.
Nan’s Wat Phumin has an unusual cruciform ubosot, built in 1596.
Inside there are four Buddha figures in bhūmisparśa mudrā. This posture reflects the moments after the Lord Buddha achieved enlightenment when he was challeged by Māra (the leader of a horde of demons) to prove that he had indeed achieved enlightenment and found a way to end all suffering. The Lord Buddha touched the earth, proclaiming that the earth was his witness.
The inner walls of the temple are covered with vibrant murals painted by Thai Lü (an ethnic group, originally from Yunan in China) artists in the 19th century. They’re a wonderful reflection on life in those days.
Nearby there’s a strange domed building.
I was a little surprised by what I found inside.
Hell on earth.
Wat Phra That Chang Kham
Nearby is Wat Phra That Chang Kham. (“Phra That” indicates that the temple houses a relic of the Lord Buddha.) It’s unknown when this temple was founded, but the vihara was rebuilt in 1458 CE. The gilded chedi dates from the 14th century.
And has elephant supporters.
Inside the temple there’s a massive figure of the Lord Buddha.
The walls have some faded murals. It’s said that the abbot ordered the murals to be whitewashed over because they were distracting the congregation from his sermons. Now they’re slowly being restored.
There were many novices hanging around in its grounds, some sweeping the paths, some buying shaved ice desserts, some just talking. Here are two playing a board game.
Wat Suam Tam
This temple, dating from 1456, has an interesting 40 m high chedi dating from the 1600s. It’s clearly influenced by Khmer architecture, though also has strong Sukhothai influences.
The vihara is absolutely ravishing in red and gold.
Wat Hua Khuang
This minor temple has a beautiful wooden mondop (library), though it’s now used as a kuti (monk’s residence).
Wat Phra That Chae Haeng
A couple of kilometres outside town is Nan’s most sacred temple, Wat Phra That Chae Haeng. The walk there’s pleasant enough, on a road through rice fields that gradually rises as it approaches the temple, which is situated atop a small hill.
Originally this wasn’t a temple, but was rather a chedi built in 1355 to house sacred Buddha relics.
The interior of the newer temple is, however, most impressive.
Each city in Thailand has a guardian spirit which lives in a pillar known as the “lak meuang”. Somewhat surprisingly, this isn’t an ancient tradition. The first lak meuang was erected by King Rama I in 1782 when he moved the Thai capital from Thonburi across the river to Bangkok. The shrine built to house Bangkok’s lak meuang was in fact the first building erected in the new capital.
Nan’s lak meuang is an impressive affair, decorated with gold leaf and topped with the four faces of the Hindu creator deity, Brahma (known in Thailand as Phra Phrom).
It’s housed in a fancy silvery-white pavilion.
And is guarded by scary demons emerging from the mouths of nagas.
One of my dark secrets is that I’m a closet Leonard Cohen fan. His witty, literate songs such as Hallelujah, I’m Your Man, Everybody Knows (“Shining artefact of the past” has to be one of my favourite lines ever) and Suzanne appeal greatly to me. Surely he must be one of Canada’s greatest exports ever.
Tonight I was reminded of another of his songs. As I looked up I saw tens of thousands of small birds perched on the overhead wires – small swifts, evenly spaced.
During the day to find evidence of these birds one can look down and see the trails of bird lime.
“Like a bird on the wire,
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free.”
Funny how he forgot to write about the poo.
As the aeroplane descended I could see the river snaking its way along the valley floor. To either side there were ox bow lakes. Seven of them I counted, but there could have been more. The houses of the small town of Nan clustered either side of the river.
For centuries Nan was an independent kingdom, isolated by the mountain ranges which surround it. Short stretches of the brick walls built to defend it still stand. Its isolation still gives it its own special character. McDonald’s and Pizza Hut haven’t made it here yet. Around town there are posters announcing stag beetle fights. And a few households still put out jars of drinking water for passers-by.
Nan lies about 670 km north of Bangkok, close to the border with Laos, and is small, with a population about 20,000.
At the bus station the woman selling tickets had a small plastic bag full of cicadas. A short bamboo tube, too small for the cicadas to crawl through, was secured to the neck of the bag by a rubber band. A small crowd had gathered to admire her tasty snack.
The town looks much like any other town: ugly rows of concrete buildings, a tangle of wires overhead. However, there are a few large teak houses in the centre of town, and a number of shady gardens with moss growing over the walls.
The major attraction of the town, however, is its charming temples. I didn’t see another Westerner in my three days in here. I doubt, however, Nan will remain off the tourist trail for much longer.
On Saturday I headed to Kanchanaburi for a short break. It’s a journey that should have taken, perhaps three hours. However, the following Tuesday was a national holiday, so every man and his dog had decided to take Monday off and have an extended break. The traffic was horrendous. And to make things worse, on one road a truck had hit something and turned on its side shedding its load of vast sacks full of carbon on the carriageway. I sat for a full hour in traffic just inching forward. And then it got dark, so traffic slowed even further. I eventually reached Kanchanaburi well after 8 p.m., having spent seven hours behind the wheel. Now, Kanchanaburi is famous for its war graves, the death railway and the Bridge over the River Kwai (even though the river isn’t the Kwai, but the Kwae – rhymes with grey) – but I’d been there, done that and got the T-shirt. I was here for Khmer temples, tigers and majestic scenery.
On Sunday I headed out of town to Meuang Singh (literally Lion City), a 13th century outpost of the mighty Angkor empire. Unlike the Khmer temples I visited in the north east, the buildings here are made of laterite, rather than of stone, and have no fine carvings. Rather, they were covered in stucco, of which only fragments remain. Furthermore, the temples were dedicated to Mahayana Buddhist Bodhisattvas, rather than to Hindu gods. Most of the buildings here are little more than piles of rubble, apart from one temple, with its central prasat. (Originally there were eight smaller, prasats around the central one, but these no longer stand.)
In the inner sanctuary stands a figure of the Avelokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion.
The inner sanctuary is surrounded by a gallery with a barrel-vaulted roof.
Afterwards I headed to another place with a feline association: the Tiger Temple.
The Tiger Temple is known for its tigers which visitors can get up close and personal with tigers – no bars or moats – and have their photo taken.
There are different versions of exactly how the temple started to take in tigers, but one version is that two orphan tiger cubs (their mother having been killed by hunters) were bought by a wealth man in Bangkok. The cubs fell sick, and their owner ordered them killed and mounted. However, the taxidermist couldn’t go through with this, and they were offered to the abbot. Buddhism teaches compassion for all life, so the abbot felt compelled to take them in, even though he knew nothing about caring for tigers. He nursed the cubs back to health. News of this spread, and he was offered more tigers – orphans and unwanted pets. He took them all in. They thrived and had cubs of their own.
Looking after tigers is an expensive business, so the temple started charging visitors to meet the tigers. And now the temple is one of the major tourist attractions in the Kanchanaburi area.
At 1 p.m. every day the tigers are led from their cages to a steep-sided canyon where they lie docilely in the sun attended by yellow-shirted volunteers.
I arrived shortly before 1 p.m., and there was a large crowd of tourists which had arrived in buses and minivans. I waited to let them go ahead. I saw a monk carefully wash out baby bottles into which he scooped powdered milk. He then took a teat and bit the end off with his teeth. Meanwhile a young temple boy, perhaps 6 years old, was in a cage with a young tiger. He wanted to get the tiger out of its water trough, so he grabbed it by the tail and pulled. The tiger quickly turned its head and snarled. The boy backed off, but the monk told him not to worry, so the boy threw a plastic ball, and the tiger was soon distracted.
In the canyon the visitors are kept behind a rope (not much protection should a tiger go ape) and are led forward, one by one, to have their photograph taken with a selection of recumbent tigers. Both large:
(And for an extra 1,000 Baht one can have a photo with a tiger’s head on one’s lap.)
An unanswered question is why the tigers are so placid. The temple says it’s because they have been hand-reared from a young age, and have just been fed. Some (but without any evidence) say that the tigers are kept drugged. And others point out that the tigers are fed a special herbal drink which the abbot claims is to support their good health, but others suggest may be a soporific.
Then there’s the emphasis on money – the entry fee, the souvenirs, the expensive “special photo”. The abbot is concerned that the current tigers can never be released into the wild – they simply don’t have the necessary survival skills. The temple has bought a large tract of land which it is in the process of converting into an “island” on which tigers will be able to roam freely without interference from man. The hope is that the next generation of tigers will be able to be released into the wild.
I’d like to believe that the abbot is genuine. Certainly, the temple attracts a good number of Thai volunteers who show the tigers off. The temple attracts large donations from local people, too. Surely the good opinion of these people is worth more than that of casual tourists passing through.
The area to the north west of Kanchanaburi is dotted with waterfalls. Of these the most famous are the Erawan falls, which I saw almost 5 years ago. This time I wanted to visit Sai Yok National Park, which has two waterfalls, Sai Yok Yai (large) and Sai Yok Noy (small), which are about 30 km apart. Big is better, so it’s to Sai Yok Yai that I headed. The park is in thick tropical jungle, and one drives through a cathedral of trees to reach the falls.
The falls are where a tributary joins the main river. To see them properly one has to cross the river by a rickety wooden suspension bridge which swings with each step. (London, eat your heart out – Thailand had wobbly bridges long before any across the Thames.)
The falls, however, when you see them, are hardly that impressive:
Still, it was a pleasant diversion, and very tranquil.
Some of the local wildlife, however, was to be avoided: