Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Asian adventure 2017: 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 all the 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.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Asian adventure 2017: Shanghai

Our second trip to Asia! Visiting Thailand had been on our mind for a while. As we had not visited Shanghai in 2015, we felt that this was the perfect opportunity to do so before traveling to Thailand.

Getting there:  the Air Canada flight from Toronto to shanghai was 14 hours long. But eh, we managed 12 hours to Beijing in 2015 so, what are a couple of hours more?

And it is so exciting to fly over half the world !

At some points, on one my numerous “promenades” to the back of the plane, I opened the “blind” and looked 33,000 feet down: snow, rocks, Siberia! Our plane GPS indicated that we were flying over the Aldan plateau, and Yakutsk, which has been listed as one of the coldest city on earth. From above, I could see buildings, snow, vast areas of rocks and desert. I could have stared out of the window for hours!

And then, 3 movies later, 3 meals later, we landed in Shanghai! As our stay in China was not going to be longer than a couple of days, we needed to apply for a short-term visa…it was a Sunday night, few customs officers worked and the travelers in need of such a visa were processed  v e r y  s l o w l y  by one team of  uniformed bureaucrats. We stood there for 2.5 hours…what a welcome! Our 2 days stay in Shanghai area had begun.

Basically, we had one day in the city itself: our guide brought us first to a silk factory.  The making of silk is fascinating: how cocoons are processed to produce such a fine fabric. This processing plant specialized in the making of silk duvets.

 Century old silk tapestries were much more fascinating than duvets...thousands of knots, subtle colours, infinite details, real works of art!

Shanghai is one of the 10 most populous cities in the world with some 24 millions inhabitants: unfortunately, the city has lost many of its old quarters to unscrupulous developers. We were lucky, I guess, to see some urban scenes of Old Shanghai.

Next excusion was to Nanjing Road, a modern pedestrian zone lined with stores and boutiques typical for the global village : the GAP, Victoria’s secret, HMV, etc…Having no interest in shopping in this kind of stores, we preferred to explore parallel streets, one of them specializing in small shops selling brushes and papers used in Chinese calligraphy!

24 millions people in a city means a lot of Bikes, scooters, Bixi!

Later that day, we visited another top tourist destination: the French Concession area. This area was built after China’s loss in the Opium Wars in 1842. The French Concession was established in 1849. Shanghai, like many other cities in China, was forced to open itself as an international port of call. The area was expanded a few times and it had its own laws and regulation: entrance by local Chinese was very limited. Chinese artists and intellectuals as well as foreigners (American, British and in the wake of the Russian revolution, Russians) flooded into this area in the 1920 and 1930’s. Opium and gambling were the main businesses in those latter years. In 1937, the Japanese army invaded the city and many residents left the city. In 1943, during WW II, the government of Vichy, France, announced that it would give up all its concessions, including Shanghai, in exchange for France relinquishing all its foreign concessions in China.

While the former French Concession remained largely unchanged during the early decades of Communist rule, the late 1980s and early 1990s saw unregulated re-development of the area tore apart many old neighbourhoods. For example, the London Planes that graced the former Avenue Joffre were removed in the 1990s, only to be later replaced after public outcry. The old French Club building and its gardens, which used to be a sports field in the early days, were gutted and became the base of the high-rise Okura Garden Hotel. And so, luckily, there are still several French planes lined streets in Shanghai but the area is one of boutiques, restaurants and is mostly frequented by tourists.

This lovely fontain is depicting Fu,Lu and Shou, also known as the Three Star Gods. Popular symbols in Feng Shui, they represent luck, prosperity and longevity!

No.76 Xingye Road (below) is located in this area and is a very popular sight with tourists, as it the site of the First National Congress of the Communist Party of China (1921): we could not visit this museum on the day we were in the area as there was a special event/meeting of the Communist Party and many military or police officers were sending us away by yelling: go away, fast, faster!!!!

Here the museum building is depicted as well as those famous plane trees!

That day our guide brought us to the Bund or waterfront area of central Shanghai. This embarkment is one of the main attraction of Shanghai and basically consists of a long pedestrian area along the river Huangpu: it faces the modern skyscrapers of the Pudong District. We did enjoy the walk along the Bund but we felt that it would be more exciting to see it at night with all the buildings illuminated!

Around 4pm, we left our group in the French Concession and walked a good hour and a half to get back to the Bund. We were quite tired due to the jet lag and the beginning of our Shanghai flu which was slowly taking its toll, but we made it! Thanks to evening darkness coming early, when we got to the Bund, together with hundreds of other people, Shanghai had all its lights on! 

We took photos and then, 15 minutes later, heavy rain began falling! Of course, our umbrellas were at the hotel. We managed to walk as fast as possible to the nearest metro station! We had prepared our subway trip back to our hotel!

 Heiner had it all figured out on his cell phone. This is an extensive metro network covering 365 miles!!! and has 14 lines! We knew that all the directions were listed in Chinese and in English in the subway. BUT…there is always a but…there were 2 trains going on line 10 (Xinjiangwancheng): and only one of them then to our destination. Hum…we asked fellow passengers but their English being deficient, we figured out only one part of the solution. Then we asked an employee who signified to us to wait for “the second train”. In the mean time, we analyzed the symbols on the front of the train we had to take…the one with 3 symbols only. Easy! The speed of the incoming train was significant and the glass doors of the subway ramp made seeing the info on the front of the train very difficult. But all went well…arrived at our destination, Heiner took us in the right direction and we walked 30 minutes in heavy rain! Oh! What an adventure!We warned our guide to search for us if we were not back at the hotel the next morning!

The next day was dedicated to Hangzhou, a tea growing area and to West Lake, a fresh water lake with numerous temples, pagodas, and gardens lining its shores. This area of a great beauty has inspired poets and artists for many centuries and has been found to be one of the most important source of inspirations for Chinese gardens designers. It was made UNESCO World heritage site in 2011 as it reflected an idealized fusion between humans and nature. No need to say that this area has become a major touristic attraction.

We needed to travel 3.5 hours by coach to get there (one way). That day, a thick fog enveloped Hangzhou: while it gave the scenery a mysterious atmosphere, it also made photo taking very challenging! However, after a day spent in a mega-city such as Shanghai, we all very much enjoyed the misty air and the tranquility of the mountains.

First we visited Longjing tea plantations. Longjing Tea or Dragon Well Tea of more than 1200 years old is the No. 1 tea in China and regarded as the “Green Queen”. The mountains and the surroundings were magnificient. Tea bushes were of a luminous green colour and the tea delicious!!! We were explained the different steps of tea growing and strongly encouraged to make green tea a daily drink! Chinese are fervent tea drinkers and every one has a bottle with green tea leaves at the bottom which will be refilled over and over!!! 

 The setting is indeed magnificient with its miniature trees, the huge teapot and the red lanterns..and lotuses!It must be an amazing place in the spring!

A view of a large pagoda on West lake. Several boats zigzag its waters. Such a pity the fog was so thick!!!

This area if covered by lotuses! Of course, at that time of the year, the flowers are gone and the plants are fading away! It is difficult to imagine how such a beautiful flower emerges from such muddy waters!

There was such elegance and serenity in this area. One could contemplate this landscape throughout the months of the year without tiring!

Before we make our way to the International Shanghai airport for our flight to Bangkok, we went to an interesting restaurant.  The place brought one back to the time of Mao!!! Its interior was a bit on the rough side, with some Chinese customers being really loud, the food quite nice but the service unwelcoming and these Mao related artefacts...I asked the guide if Mao had dined here sometimes ago..No but this being the province (Hunan) where the chairman is originally from, it seems a way to honour his memory! Interestingly, our guide did admit that a large part of the population (himself included, it seems!!) are nostalgic about the Mao years. Acknowledging that not all Mao's projects and ideas were good, it seems that the overall feeling is that he did a lot of good for the country.

Anyhow, if revolutionary music had played in the restaurant, it would have been easy to fall back to the past.