Saturday, November 18, 2017

Asian adventure 2017: Northern Thailand

When does one have the need to take photos of an airport arrival terminal??? Besides the excitement of arriving in this montainous part of the country, the terminal with its orchids and traditional Lanna's music (one of the numerous hilltribes of Northern Thailand) prolonged our amazement!


Chian Rai lies 860 km north of Bangkok and is the largest city of Northern Thailand. The city lies on the flat alluvial plain of the Mae Kok River, a tributary of the Mekong river.
Founded in the 13th century, it belonged to Burma (today's Myanmar) and only became part of Thailand around 1899!

Our  hotel, the Dusit Island Resort, was in fact located on the Kok river not very far away from Chian Rai city. In this heat, its pool was very inviting  and it was most difficult to leave the resort in order to take the shuttle for a visit of the night bazaar. After Chian Mai's bazaar, it is the second largest of the country. A not to miss opporunity!

We went early so the crowds were not too big. The food stalls were amazing! Unfortunately, due to our flu, our appetite was not very big. Nevertheless, the colours and smells were very intriguing. Unfortunately, our guide was not with us and there were many items we could not identify!!!

A long-tail boat ride to visit the Karen village took a good hour.  Traveling on long-tail boats was delightful despite the fact that our skipper had problems with its engine and was not able to really speed up to keep up with the other captains!

The Kok river is a wide, shallow, and slow-moving river. Its shores were pleasants and enabled us a view of people and animal habitats.

Hill dwelling peoples (7 major tribes within Thailand) each with a distinct language and culture.have traditionally been primarily subsistence farmers who use slash-and-burn agricultural techniques to farm their heavily forested communities.  After the soil was depleted, the people would leave the area. Hence, their lifestyle was of a very nomadic nature.

The negative impact of slash and burn practices on the environment, as well as concerns over borderland security and population pressure has led to forcible relocation of many hill tribe peoples.

Survival for these people is a challenge: while they still practice some kind of agriculture, their lives have changed. Cultural travel tourism bringing visitors to their villages has become an increasing source of income.

While we have ambiguous feelings towards this type of tourism, we must admit that it does provide income to these people and encourages them to produce their traditional crafts.  How successful is it to keep the young generation out of trouble (i.e. prostitution in cities like Bangkok) ? So, as we did when we cruised in the Caribbean, we chose to encourage to local economy, one way or another!

Our destination the Karen village, home to more than 1500 families of various hill tribes, has been developped with the hope to make it a tourist destination where visitors can get a glimpse of the hill tribe's way of life.

Karen traditional clothing, typical for the V neck garments.

Rice cultivation: here the rice dries before being processed.

Karen woman in her small house: she created wonderful weaved pieces of clothing: here she is holding a blue scarf that Marleyne bought for her sister.

As we were leaving the compound, a small lady of the Akha people came to greet us: despite the heat, she was wearing her traditional multi-layered costume, hoping for a small offering....of course, we greeted her with a bow (no language skills required!) thanking her for being there for our pleasure and curiosity.

We continued our travel to the Golden Triangle border, that special place where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet.  The area is separated by the Ruak and the Mekong rivers. This region has long been renowned as one of the world's largest opium production area. Most of the world's heroin came from the Golden Triangle until the early 21st century when Afghanistan became the world's largest producer.
On the left, Myanmar (anciently, Burma).

On the right, Laos.
Our restaurant was perched on a small hill and enabled us to admire this beautiful region. Sometimes, we had to pinch ourselves ..are we really that far away? Laos, Burma, Mekong river ...

Yes, indeed, we were vey far away as posted here! Half-way around the world!

On November 17th, anniversary day of Marleyne's mother's death, we visited a temple in Chiang Rai with the intention of making an offering to Buddha in her memory. We chose to enter the grounds of one of the city's oldest temples, Wat Phra Singh (ca.1385). Among the numerous structures pertaining to the temple, there was a chapel containing a footprint of the Buddha, the monks living quarters as well as a Pali language school. Pali is the language in which the ancient Buddhist scriptures are written.

The Phra Sihing Buddha image (white) in the Bhumisparsha pose (earth touching gesture) is believed to originate from Sri Lanka.
A stunning Cannonball tree or Sala Lanka tree throned in the temple's garden. This tree is significant for the Buddhists: In Hindu tradition, the sal tree is said to be favoured by Vishnu. It is said that Queen Māyā of Sakya gave birth to Gautama Buddha under a sal tree! It s flowers have a very sweet smell. All parts of that tree have diverse uses in addition to its religious significance.

And yes, we visited another temple that appears of the tourist attractions list: Wat Rong Khun. The White Temple, is a contemporary, unconventional, privately-owned art exhibit in the style of a Buddhist temple in Chiang Rai Province. It is owned by the artist who designed it, Chalermchai Kositpipat who opened it to visitors in 1997.

The main building at the white temple is reached by crossing a bridge over a small lake. In front of the bridge are hundreds of outreaching hands that symbolize unrestrained desire. The bridge proclaims that the way to happiness is by foregoing temptation, greed, and desire.
 As in all buddhist temples, one can buy amulettes with the name of a deceased loved one for whom the monks will pray...another prayer for Marleyne's mother! As you can see, thousands of amulettes ornated that post...the monks are kept busy!

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Asian adventure 2017: Bangkok, Thailand

A red eye flight from Shanghai got us tired but excited to the international Bangkok airport. A staff from AmiThai Travel was waiting for us, quite tired also! Our hotel in Bangkok was the posh Royal Orchid Sheraton: soon after arrival, we had a shower and went to bed…at about 5am!!!  At 10am, we were having breakfast with a magnificient view of the  the Chao Phraya river!! Bangkok was welcoming us with sunshine and 30C+ temperature - humidity there is always above 80%!!!!

First item on the itinerary was Jim Thompson house (a tong breaker for Thai people). This is the story of an American who fell in love with Thai culture and Thai silk in the 1940’s. Thai people are grateful to Thompson for putting the Thai silk on the world’s market (and thus, competing with Chinese silk). 

His house, in the heart of Bangkok, was our introduction to Thai culture. The interior of the house was fabulous but picture taking was not allowed.

The gardens of the house were offering glimpses of Thai plants and orchids. It felt like a paradise! Small temples in honour of Buddha displayed flowers (marigolds, straw flowers) also ornated the gardens.

A long-tail boat tour on the Chao Phraya river was delightful: we love exploring cities through their waterways!!! Chao Phraya river begins in the very north of Thailand and flows south for 372 kilometres to Bangkok and the gulf of Thailand.

Exploring the riverside of Bangkok offers an interesting glimpse in this 9 millions inhabitants city.  Pagodas, temples, hotels, and lots of boat traffic! The long-tail boat tour lasted a good 1.5 hour and took us to different sights, among them, the Temple of Dawn or Wat Arun on the West bank of the river.

Wat Arun is the best known temple of the country and it was our first visit to a Buddhist temple. Wat Arun, named after an Hindu God Aruna, existed in the 17th century but his distinctive spires were built in the early 19th century during the reign of King Rama II.


This spire between 219 and 282 ft high is the main feature of the temple with its corners equally supported by 4 smaller spires. All spires are decorated with seashells and bits of porcelain which had previously used as ballast by boats coming to Bangkok from China!

Families wearing the traditional costume were proudly displaying them and happy to have their photo taken!

Not only temples can be seen on the river edge...simple habitats also.

In a restaurant or in the evening, to relax after a very hot day, Chang beer was delicious!!!

 Another day, another temple...Wat Pho was astonishing! A huge complex of 80,000 sq. meters and one of Bangkok oldest temples, it even existed before Bangkok was established as the capital of Thailand by Rama I. Indeed, in 1782, Rama I moved the capital from Thonburi (west bank of Chao Phraya) to the actual Bangkok site and ordered the renovation of the temple where his ashes are now enshrined.  Wat Pho houses the largest collection of Buddha images (1,000) of the country and the 150 feet long reclining Buddha. 

The temple complex has 2 main parts: one open to visitors with the buildings dedicated to Buddha. The other part on the opposite side of the street contains the residential quarters of the monks and a school. 

The perimeter of the wall of the main complex has 16 gates, 2 of which serve as entrancesfor the public. A number of large statues depict ing Europeans, Chinese, and Japanese are also found within the complex guarding the gates of the walls. They were originally imported as ballasts on ships trading with China!

Still in the huge complex of Wat Pho temple is a double walled cloister, Phra Rabiang, containing 400 images/statues of Buddha from Northern Thailand selected out of the 1200 images bought by King Rama I. Some standing, some sitting, are mounted on a gilded pedestal. While they stemmed from different periods in Thai history and therefore were of different colours and materials, Rama I had them covered with stucco and gold leaves to give them a similar look.

Phra Chedi Rai: outside the double walled cloisters, these 71 chedis built by Rama III contain the ashes of the Royal Family.

Larger towers of Phra at each corner of the courtyard are guardians of the four cardinal points.

 Phra Ubosot is the main hall to perform buddhist rituals and the most sacred building of the complex. Here a Thai monk praying.

Wat Pho was also intended to serve as a place of education for the general public. To this end, granite plaques were inscribed with texts and illustrations related to medicine, Thai massage and other related subjects and can be found around the temple.
Equally destined to educated the public, small rock gardens are dispersed through the complext with statues showing methods of massage or yoga positions.

 The chapel and the reclining Buddha were built by Rama III in 1832. This huge sculture represents the entry of Buddha into Nirvana and the end of all reincarnations. Its posture is is referred as the posture of a sleeping or reclining lion. With its 15 meter high and 46 meters long, it is one of the largest Buddha statues in Thailand.

 And while we are silently walking around buddha, the sound of coins falling in bowls resonnates through the temple: these 108 bronze bowls commemorate 108 characters of Lord Buddha.

One of the must-visits when in Bangkok is the Grand Palace, which has been the official residence of the Kings of Siam (and later, Thailand) since 1782.

The Palace was a popular sight when we visited in November because King Rama IX has just been cremated and his remains and ashes were taken to diverse places within the Grand Palace complex. Thais, who were now permitted to wear colours instead of mourning black or dark clothing, were there in great numbers.  And our guide mentioned that the crowds were going to get larger as the day progressed.  It was indeed very packed and difficult to  move around. That day, we had to walk from the bus parking lot along the street, following the white walls of the Palace.  Not a big distance but with the crowds and the heat, quite challenging at times.  The Palace complex is 2,000,000+ square feet  consists of numerous buildings, halls, pavillons set around open lawns, garden and courtyards.

We visited its most important sights, among them, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha or Wat Phra Kaew . Regarded as the most sacred Buddhist temple in Thailand,Wat Phra Kaew has over 100 buildings within the perimeter of the Grand Palace, covering a total area of over 94.5 hectares (234 acres).  With its "old Bangkok style" architecture, the main temple of the Emerald Buddha is very elegantly decorated. The roof is embellished with polished orange and green tiles, the pillars are inlaid in mosaic and the pediments are made of rich marble, installed around 18th century. Its original construction was terminated in 1784. But the temple underwent several renovations, additions, and extensions under the reign of each King.

As for all sacred temples in Thailand, a strict rule of entry and conduct was applied at Wat Phra Kaew. Men must wear long trousers and sleeved shirts and shoes; women must wear long skirts or long pants. It is compulsory to remove the shoes before entering the temple (when in a crowd of hundreds of people, easier said than done but very well organised!) as a sign of respect of the Buddha., as is the practice in all other temples in Thailand. In general, while offering prayers before the Buddha image, the sitting posture should avoid any offensive stretching of feet towards the deity; the feet should be tucked in towards the back. In the case of the Emerald Buddha, we stood!and the Buddha could not be offended by our feet pointing towards him as the gate hid all of this.
 The Emerald Buddha is considered the symbolic protector of the Kingdom of Thailand.  It is a figurine of the meditating Buddha seated in yogic posture, made of a semi-precious green stone (jade ). The Emerald Buddha is adorned with three different sets of gold seasonal costume; two were made by Rama I, one for the summer and one for the rainy season, and a third made by Rama III for the winter or cool season. The clothes are changed by the King of Thailand, or another member of the royal family in a ceremony at the changing of the seasons (hot season, rainy season and cold season).

This picture (taken by Gremel Madolora - on wikipedia)  shows the Buddha in his winter clothing the way we saw it during our visit.

The history of this beautiful figure can be read in Wikipedia.
We feel fortunate to have been shown one of the most important figure of Thailand Buddhism.

There are many temples in Bangkok...and also many markets!

We were interested in the well known Damnoen Saduak Canal located in Ratchaburi, about 100 km south of Bangkok.  Getting there was interesting in itself. as it presented us with non-touristic sites such as wood yards selling teak wood! and magnificent  wooden Thai Spirit houses, often sighted in private homes temples to Buddha as shown below.

The  Damnoen Saduak Canal was built at the end of the 19th century and was 32 km long. Soon after its construction was finished, more than 200 ancillary canals were dugged by villagers who soon found this means of transportation ideal to carry their goods from their gardens to markets. 

We drove at a good speed and caught a glimpse of the villagers home living on the canal.

As we approached the Damnoen Saduak market area, boat traffic became more intense, with boats barely able to move and touching each other.

  While the vocation of this market has become almost exclusively touristic, there are still food merchants to be seen, selling fresh produces and typical Thai delicacies. In this hat, I really enjoyed delicious iced coffee with coconut cakes!

And there are snake handlers ..for those tourists who would like to have their picture taken with cobras and other snakes (often imported from other countries just because they show well, such as this yellow Burmese python).