From hell to heaven: benediction at Chiang Rai.

If I told you that I thought I might have come down with dengue fever, you could be forgiven for considering that diagnosis over-the-top. Still, since we are so far away from home, and I just spent three days and nights alternating between sweats and chills, and drifting in and out of sleep for 20 out of 24 hours, the thought crossed my mind. I was able to  reassure myself, as apparently the dengue headache is mindblowingly painful, (mine was medium, but constant) and the fever is referred to as “bone break” for a reason. As much as I love a good story, it would appear that so far I have escaped a tropical ailment; just caught the good old-fashioned flu. Woke up this morning, “It’s a miracle! I’m alive!”

It began four days ago, on our travel day from Pai to Chiang Rai. First the three-hour mountain road (762 curves – someone has counted) to Chiang Mai. Then a three-hour wait in the bus station, where we both fell asleep upstairs in the waiting room on bus seats that were so dirty I normally would not have sat on them. Then, a three-hour bus ride to Chiang Rai with no air-conditioning. At one point, I was sweating and shaking and feeling so sick, I didn’t know how I was going to last. I asked our hostess to please turn on the air-conditioning and she walked down the bus, reaching for the vents and frowning; a small sea of hands began waving in front of their vents. She appeared encouraged to find the faintest little “pfff” coming from our vents, but nothing improved. I believe it was either faulty or deliberately turned very low to save on fuel. We finally rolled into Chiang Rai, grabbed a songtaew and made it to our hotel, where I have spent most of the last 48 hours in bed.
Briefly, I did get outside for short walks with Stephen, but until today, he has been on his own. Yesterday, he ventured into town for a bit of sightseeing and first came upon came upon this portly golden Buddha.

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A bit further down the street, he discovered Wat Phra Kaew, unbeknownst to him, but the more important temple in Chiang Rai; site of the original Emerald Buddha.
In 1434, a bolt of lightning struck the chedi to reveal the original Buddha hidden inside (made of jade, not emerald, as was first thought). This treasure was moved about until it found its final place in Bangkok’s Grand Palace. Over 500 years later, A new Buddha was commissioned for Thailand’s Princess Mother’s 90th birthday in 1990, using jade imported from Canada (maybe Jade City, BC?)

Our country’s contribution to Thailand’s history:

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The city of Chiang Rai has been described as being more liveable than touristy and that is an accurate assessment. Although it is packed with temples, it is more a launching spot for hill treks, trips to the Golden Triangle, and in our case, the last stop before we leave for Laos.
We’re staying at the Chiang Rai Condotel, which offers large condo studio suites with kitchenette, seating, a balcony and use of a very large and welcome pool – for $25 a night. We were originally booked for just two nights, but extended our stay by another two, to let me get better before we took on our two-day boat trip down the Mekong.

We found these very curious mannequins in a local shop two nights ago. I have seen laughing mannequins just once before – in a hat shop in New Orleans – and now here they were in all their garish glory in a nondescript dress store in Chiang Rai. I have Googled them, would love to know if there is any significance to them – let me know if you’ve heard of them.  Stephen grabbed this shot with the proprietor proudly sitting beside them.

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There are a number of innovative motorcycle-driven vehicles to travel around Thailand, but we thought the old-fashioned rickshaw had largely disappeared.  Stephen grabbed a photo of this driver, asleep. I could not imagine how we would feel sitting in the cab, watching his frail back as he cycled us along in the heat.

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They say if you do one thing in Chiang Rai you should visit the White Temple, so we headed out this morning, hoping to beat the heat and the crowds. We were largely successful on both counts; by the time we left, tourists were being herded across the bridge by bullhorn-ed directions,”Keep moving, please. Don’t stop on the bridge, please.” Ours was a far more leisurely and zen-like experience.

The White Temple has to be seen to be believed – our pictures cannot capture the excess,the sugar-froth confection, and the forces of good battling evil, that is the brainchild of visual artist Chalermchai Kositpipat.

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Self-described as a devout Buddhist, the Buddhist church would have kicked him out but for the support and admiration of the late King, who bought a number of his paintings. That patronage has helped to make the artist a very wealthy man, and his themes of moving from hell and damnation to nirvana by means of eschewing all earthly desires may be suspect. Cardboard cutouts of the artist portray a more bon vivant pitchman than humble holy man.

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Walking up the bridge toward the temple, one must first pass by hundreds of hands, reaching and begging for help; a reflection of human suffering.

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Other frightening symbols from the dark side.

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The Gate of Heaven is guarded by monstrous creatures, who will decide our fate. This one does not show one speck of benevolence.

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And then…over the bridge, and we have crossed to nirvana. We entered the temple (no photos allowed) – rather simple, but for the pop culture and superhero images inside. Apparently Keanu Reeves’ image is in there somewhere – I did not notice it.

The rest of the park is all about the details – surreal and outlandish as they may be. The artist covered the temple in pure white plaster to reflect the purity of Buddha and in embedded mirrors to reflect His glory.

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I loved this tree and its gnarly vines – there were a number of big, older trees like this on the property, as well as bromeliad orchids.

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Everyone was lining up to have their photo taken with this fellow, so I did as well.

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We leave Thailand by sending out good wishes to all of you. Seriously – we bought a silver leaf for 30 baht (just over $1), and wrote on one side “Health and happiness to our families”and on the other side “Health and happiness to our friends.” That silver leaf hangs on the tree, preceded by thousands of others on other trees and rafters. We are confident it will work. See you again in a few days.

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West invades East; but you can’t beat the scenery

You may wonder if you’re still in Thailand when you pop into a store on Pai’s main walking street, and see a Frida Kahlo bag for sale.

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And the food…if you’re looking for a burger or an Irish breakfast, or a brownie (chocolate and otherwise), there are no end of food stalls and restaurants catering to tourists looking for a break from noodles and rice.

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Pai is set in a valley ringed by mountains, with a river running through it, but the town is not all that pretty, and not the reason tourists flock here in droves. A few very walkable streets form a grid downtown; seeing all the town has to offer can be done in a day. We stopped for a coffee at a riverside resort and enjoyed the people-watching and the view.
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We crossed over the bamboo bridge and followed a path on the other side for a while. We were watching a young boy spear-fishing by the bridge;  the 36 degree heat was almost enough to entice us to follow him into the river. It looked clean enough, but the only humans you ever see in these rivers are young Thai boys, and they may have a natural immunity to whatever travels through here.

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The main walking street in Pai is wide open to traffic during the day, but by late afternoon, the stalls come out, and the night market begins to take shape. The food stalls are so exciting – it is like being at a food trade show in North America, where you can’t decide so you have sushi and curry and sausage and a smoothie – all at the same time. We have paid for such indiscretions with little tummy upsets, but it is hard to resist. The food is so fresh and made to order and ridiculously inexpensive – a big bowl of noodle soup costs just over a dollar.
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Alcohol is a different matter. Wine is very expensive in Thailand, and often improperly stored in hot stores, so we have limited ourselves to beer, which suits the food and temperature better. Whisky in buckets is a thing here, but the idea of drinking quantities of cheap whiskey in the heat has been very easy to resist – even for the sake of research. So, we are drinking very little and not missing it – quite cheering on both counts. Not everyone is abstaining, of course – Pai’s streets are lined with bars, including this one that aptly captures Pai’s “anything goes”approach to life.
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Tattoo artists, especially ones with bamboo needles, are another attraction in Pai. With our hepatitis shots up to date, we might have considered bringing home a Thai souvenir, but something tells me a tattoo virgin should never consider the first ink while away on vacation.
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So…on to the real reason Pai is such a popular destination – the surrounding countryside. We signed up for an all-day excursion, taking 12 of us to a cave, bamboo rafting, hot springs, and a sunset at a local canyon. It was an absolute deal – with lunch, water, fruit, tour guide and air-conditioned transportation provided for just $20. They delivered beautifully, but for a small let-down with our transport. We did not travel in a comfortable minibus (as suggested); instead we travelled all day on hairpin turns at breakneck speed in a songtaew (which is inarguably air-conditioned). Posing in front of our songtaew is one of our guides and his little buddy who came along to hand out water.

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This mightily uncomfortable vehicle forces one to sit sideways on a brutally hard bench and hang on to the overhead bars for dear life. We travelled out for an hour to the cave, with Stephen feeling very queasy. On our way to the hot springs, Stephen’s feeling of queasiness grew until he threw up. At this point, the driver pulled over and brought Stephen into the front seat, where he was allowed to remain for the duration of the trip.

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Our first stop was Tham Lod – a gigantic cave divided into three distinct chambers. It is compulsory to enter with a guide – this cave is very basic – no lights, not even pathways, and pitch black. Our group was divided into four groups – three to a guide, so Stephen and I were accompanied by Georges, a very French gentleman now living in Corsica. Our young guide carried a lantern and led the way, carefully watching for us. She spoke little English, but somehow we managed to understand a few things she was pointing out. After I bashed my head into a low-hanging formation, she giggled. She also said,”many steps”, and giggled again as she watched us look up and contemplate a few flights of rickety stairs.

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There were two immediate impressions of being in the cave – a smell of bat guano and a humid claustrophobia that comes from being in the absolute dark. Both impressions faded as we made our way through – a journey that took over an hour.

After our guide pointed out the remains of teak coffins that had been brought in over 1400 years ago (no bodies), we hopped onto bamboo rafts for the rest of the trip. The river that runs through the cave is swarming with really huge whisker-y fish (like carp) so they were almost as entertaining to watch as our gaslit voyage.

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For the last 15 minutes or so, the sound of squeaking bats really intensified; the ground and stair railings are covered in guano. A recommended way to visit the cave is to come late afternoon, and be at the entrance to the cave as thousands of bats and swifts leave en masse.

We had lunch with our group after that very enjoyable visit – Nick and Jenny in front (newly married from England, taking 18 months to travel the world before they settle down), and Molly and Steve from Oregon, travelling and trying to digest the fact that Trump is their president.

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On to the hot springs, which we were all skeptical about, since we were hot enough already. They were in fact warm springs, with crystal clear water and a therapeutic mud we rubbed on our faces. I doubt an expensive spa gives better results.

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And, the piece de resistance – a gorgeous sunset over Pai Canyon. Pai Canyon is place that really should be visited twice – once early in the day to hike before it gets too hot,and again for the sunset. The canyon trail can be dangerous, as the ledges are narrow in spots and the drop is hundreds of feet below. Since there were so many people gathered, we felt quite unwilling to walk along the ledges amongst such a crowd.

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And speaking of crowds, a small sampling of people waiting for the magic moment. There was enough room for everyone to have their own little spot; it all added to the moment.

 

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The last bright glimpse of the sun setting for another day.

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And…the afterglow.  A  fitting and memorable last day in Pai.

imageAnd now, we are on the move for a few days. Tomorrow we take two three-hour buses – one back down to Chiang Mai, then another back north to Chiang Rai. We’re in Chiang Rai for two nights, which will mark the end of our time in Thailand.

We will cross the border into Lao and begin a two-day slow boat journey on the Mekong River to Luang Prabang. Our next blog will be full of details about our boat trip – see you in a few days.

Geezers in Pai-radise

Pai is a sweet little town in the northern mountains of Thailand, accessible by a three-hour minibus ride from Chiang Mai that warns you ahead of time of the 762 hairpin turns it takes to get there. Gravol is recommended. After  miming driving a bus, swaying back and forth and then throwing up, the laughing clerk at 7-11 pointed me in the right direction, and armed me with two small packets of anti-nausea meds. I knew we had to avoid sitting in the back, so if I ever had any manners, they are now gone, as I pushed and elbowed and maneuvered to grab a good seat. It was worth it, as our drive up was quite scenic and otherwise uneventful.

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We had heard great things about Pai. Good food, good music, a solid hippie healing scene, and a natural springboard to all sorts of natural attractions – caves, waterfalls, hiking trails, small villages, rafting, etc. We had also heard it was a young and loud party scene, and based on that wisdom (cheek-by-jowl hostels, happy hour bars), we chose a place just 1 km. out of town – Pai Vintage Garden. We were delighted to find a little oasis an easy 15-minute walk from the action.

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We headed back into town for dinner and our first look around, and the first thing we noticed was that the young-uns outnumbered us by about 90-1.  Fit, tanned, bikini-ready and with every imaginable hairstyle, tattoo and body adornment on parade. The few older folks we saw looked as though they fell off the side of the earth a couple of decades back.    It was hard not to feel like we were party-crashers, and badly-dressed ones at that. Soon enough though, we had an ebullient fellow beckoning us over to his beer bar, and with two giant Changs in hand, we were made to feel welcome and not-so-old.

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Stephen has been keen to rent a scooter ever since we arrived in Thailand, and the first thing we did was arrange a rental with our hotel, for a walloping $6 a day. The only one our host had left was called Scooby – Pepto-Bismol pink, with bright red lips on the side. I say it takes a real man to hop on one of these babies and act as though he’s on a Harley. I think we were over-sold on the power of the engine, but it was still lots of fun.

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You actually have to rent a scooter or motorbike here, as so many of the attractions are several kilometres out of town, and there is very little public transport.  The alarming thing about this is that the town and roads are absolutely clogged with people who have never ridden a bike before. Rental places are taking five minutes to explain operations, and then tossing out scores of young people onto the roads; the results have not been pretty. We saw at least four people with bike-related injuries, ranging from scrapes to broken legs. We were starting to feel a little cocky about our own (Stephen’s) experience, when…dang. Down he went. It happened near here.

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We had been riding along this pretty country road, on our way to a waterfall. This time of year the waterfall has subsided to a trickle – but it gave us a reason to walk across a rickety bamboo bridge and stick our feet in cold water. We were back in the parking lot, getting ready to climb a hill on our way to a rice paddy when it happened. I was standing to one side so Stephen could position the bike properly and he miscalculated. He started it too far up the hill; the bike rolled back, slid out on the sand, and went over the side.  Stephen did a perfect tuck and roll down the hill (two somersaults) before landing safely and getting back on his feet. Two young people ran right over, to help lift the bike up the hill and tend to Stephen’s scraped elbow. Much to our relief, both man and bike were intact, although Stephen felt embarrassed – again, the old guy.  We took off down the road to our next attraction – elephants! This little guy is five years old.

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You can’t come to Thailand without seeing elephants, even if the only sighting is a statue or carving. Elephant “parks” are everywhere. There is much controversy about the way elephants are handled and trained, and whether or not they should be ridden. We decided before we came here that we would not go on a riding trip, but we were curious to see them in a sanctuary setting. One-day visits are quite costly ( about $200 a person), and we were considering it, when we drove right by one of the camps and stopped by for a look. I’ve never  been a fan of zoos or animal camps of any kind – but it was still a thrill to see these monstrous beasts up close, so I’m hoping they have a good situation. This elephant is 25 years old.

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Big baskets of fruit were on sale to feed the elephants, and after tentatively handing pieces of banana to the elephant’s trunk, the handler told me to pop it right in his mouth. He called out a command, and the elephant lifted his trunk to reveal a huge, slobbery tongue. Then, the handler told me to move in and the elephant would give me a “hug”. Who knew it would be so much fun to hang out with these endearing guys?

After our elephant encounter, we stopped at a very unusual tourist attraction called The Land Split. Apparently, in 2008, without any warning, a farmer woke up to discover his land had cracked open, with a fissure 11 metres deep and two metres wide.

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Although his soy bean crop was no longer viable, hibiscus flowers had been growing wild, and the farmer developed a smart business plan. He harvested the flowers to make juice and jam, and marketed this new development as a quirk of nature. I wish I had asked his name – he is a wonderful, generous man.

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He draws in scores of tourists, and serves them fresh roselle juice and small plates of fruit; asking only for a donation.  Here, we had sweet potato with salt, tamarind, passionfruit, peanuts and banana chips with hibiscus jam.
You can tour his property before or after your feast.

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As we rode back to town, we passed one idyllic scene after another.

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Constructing bamboo rafts – a staple of river travel here.

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Today, we went out sightseeing again, but the tumble from the day before had taken its toll on Stephen. He woke up feeling very stiff and sore, so we limited our riding to half a day, and then handed back the keys this evening.  We may tackle a scooter again in northern Laos. We went to the most curious tourist attraction – the Chinese Village, about a half-hour’s ride from Pai. It is in fact populated by real Chinese families, who fled Mao’s regime and settled here. In the middle of their village, they have constructed the oddest assortment of buildings and scenes – quite tacky. Small children were being led around in the blistering sun on a couple of rather listless ponies, and selfie-sticks were in full force as tourists (mainly Chinese) posed in front of a mock-up of The Great Wall of China or a pagoda. One could dress up in period costume or buy trinkets or tea, or…jump onto a 4-seater Ferris wheel and scream while being hoisted about 20 feet in the air.


After all that excitement, we rode further up the road to the viewpoint – worth the drive.

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Much more to come, including more of the town’s sights – we’re here for another three days. I’ll leave you with a sign that sums up the Pai attitude:

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Chiang Mai – just a few temples (I promise)

There is no shortage of temples in Chiang Mai, and you can feel duty-bound to visit them  all. Mainly, they look the same – pagoda roofs, dragons, Buddhas – but each one has its own distinct features. They are interesting until they’re not, and at that point, you call it a day and go for a beer. To save you, dear reader, I’ll just include some highlights – quirks and observations, and spare you pointless identification and details that you’re not likely interested in anyway. To begin, a massive gold chedi:

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A long line of people, both Thai and foreign,  who with flowers and prayers in hand, walk the circumference of the chedi. For tourists, it can be a rite of passage; for the observant, it is deeply moving and solemn.

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Young girls in costume position themselves on the stairs leading up to this mountaintop temple.  People take photos, the girls run over to their parents with the cash, and then resume position. We had no idea what the significance of the costume is, but found the whole thing upsetting.

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This almost life-sized elephant offered a quiet spot for a couple of the local dogs.

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While most of the temples are golden and jewel-encrusted (well, coloured-glass
encrusted), we found this pretty little teak temple  that outwardly, was far more modest.

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Inside, another story. A donation box the size of a bank safe was prominently situated.

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On the opposite side of the temple was  a line-up of donation slots, according to the day of our birth.  The sign promised that a donation would ensure a better life and fate. Naturally, the Mother Goose rhyme “Monday’s child” lodged itself in my brain. (I’m Saturday – “Works hard for a living”, and Stephen is Thursday – “Has far to go”).

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We marvelled at the wealth of the temples in contrast to the poverty of the faithful, and how the constant outreached hand for donations, alms, flowers, candles, incense and monk support must put a financial burden on the country’s neediest inhabitants.

The temples do provide a serene and contemplative setting, even for the tourists who simply want to admire their surroundings, and find a break from the street.

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This magnificent carved structure held a command post overlooking the whole city. Each column was carved in great detail and we noticed the symbols of the Thai zodiac, which is similar to Chinese. An interesting observation – the Thai (or Buddhist) calendar is different from ours – we noticed that with a hotel receipt, the year was marked 2560!

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There have been so many unusual signs at the temples – sometimes a case of lost in translation, like the one below:

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This sign was actually bearing itself out as we entered the grounds. We could hear a dog barking rather fiercely, and then giving a couple of final little “woofs”, as dogs are wont to do, before circling back and lying in the shade – his guard duties complete. Presumably, he has given chase in the past.

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And finally – the no-go zone for women – monk territory.

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 Often, we notice locals wearing T-shirts with messages that are either inappropriate or so Western that the connection can’t possibly mean anything.  We loved this one, and so did its owner -he proudly posed for me. Whether he is being deliberately ironic or is simply the recipient of a nice shirt, we have no idea.

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A couple of days ago, we were walking through a museum just behind a very scholarly-looking young Chinese couple. The girl had on a shirt that read, “Rollin’ with my Homies”. It didn’t quite seem to fit her personality and style, but – one should never judge.

This sign, outside a Thai (non-western) restaurant, is missing a verb. Very clever – it got our attention.

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Last night, the main street just down the road from our hotel, transformed into a pedestrian-only night market. We ignored the advice of the hotel owner, who advised us to go early because of the crowds, but crowds and all it was a lot of fun. First, we ate:

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Then, we shopped around – there was some really lovely stuff. I bought a blouse and dress that are suited to this climate – light cotton  – about $11 for both. Many other things were calling out, but we had to walk by.

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This little girl took great care to stack and present her soaps properly.

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The evening’s excitement proved to be a bit much for this lady.

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Musicians and entertainers were everywhere. This group of (mainly) farangs swung by in their robes, chanting “Hare Krishna. Hare Krishna.” It took me back about 40 years, and then suddenly this lovely young woman swung toward me, (feeling my energy, I’m sure). For one awful moment, I thought she was going to pull me in, but they moved on.

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We stopped to listen to these musicians – Eastern instruments, Western fedoras.

We have had a really wonderful time in Chiang Mai – it has been a highlight so far. Tomorrow we head up north to Pai, now billed as being Full Moon Party central, without the beach. We’ll see how we do! We know we want to investigate some hill trekking, and some caving, and enjoy the time in the mountains.

Stephen has been chomping at the bit to ride a motorbike (or scooter), and so far I’ve resisted, since the city traffic is so scary. Up north, we may just go for it. I’ll leave you with a final photo of Stephen checking out the merchandise.

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Chiang Mai: How I Imagined Thailand

You know how you imagine a place you’ve never visited before, and then, when you arrive, it is nothing like the pictures you had in your head? Thailand has been like that for us. It has been very different from anything we’ve seen before. However, as soon as we drove into Chiang Mai, the images in our heads were lining up with what was unfolding in front of our eyes. Now you’re talking – this is the Thailand we had imagined.

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Chiang Mai is a fairly large and modern city, but the downtown area where tourists congregate is old and charming. Contained within moats and stone walls, the core has easy and picturesque walking distance to everything – temples, markets and street life.

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Chiang Mai has become extremely popular with tourists of all ages. It has a pleasing combination of traditional old-world Thai and new-agey kombucha bars. Yoga features prominently, as does buttery croissants. This is the city where ex-pats came for a visit and stayed for a decade. The streets and narrow lanes are full of unexpected little scenes, like this one – someone’s dainties hanging out to dry in full view of passers-by.

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Restaurants cater to locals and tourists, with everything on offer from fried morning glories to Belgian beer. The food is pretty much guaranteed to be great, whatever you eat and wherever you eat it. Street food is a bonanza of choice and flavour – if you are tired of Pad Thai, you can try fried pig intestine.

Thai coconut soup – so fresh and delicious.

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Local fruit and local yogurt.

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There are Thai cooking schools on every corner – we met new friends here (from Nanaimo!) who spent yesterday learning how to make chili paste, spring rolls and chicken with cashews. It was tempting to consider, but by the time we have a kitchen again, my newfound Thai cooking knowledge will likely be long gone.

Another service we will not be taking advantage of – custom-made suits or dresses. Tailor shops and massage parlours have cropped up like mushrooms after a rain to meet the demand of farangs (tourists, or foreigners) who are in the market for a $100 suit or a $10 massage. In Bangkok and Hua Hin we were chased by aggressive sales people; here in Chiang Mai their marketing approach is far more mellow – this store has simply posted written testimonials from satisfied customers.

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What I did try was the fish pedicure – much hilarity ensued. We have walked past a number of these shops, with tanks of tiny fish just waiting to nibble the dead skin from tourist feet. Yesterday I decided to give it a try. First, I was instructed to rinse my feet in a tub of clean water. Then, I hoisted myself up on the bench, swung my legs around and dipped my feet in. Well! It was not the tentative little nibbles I had anticipated – a GANG of fish swooped in on my feet and just went to town. The sensation was almost unbearable at first – an intense combination of tickling, almost electric, kind of annoying and quite relentless. These fish were going after my dead skin like it was their life’s work. After five minutes or so I got used to it, but 15 minutes was more than enough.

We’ve had a wonderful time mixing it up – visiting a few temples and then just wandering the streets. We turned a corner and came upon this universal scene – children feeding (and chasing) pigeons.

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More pigeon fans.

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The architecture of Chiang Mai is an intriguing mix of new and old. The traditional old teakhouses are still around; many in varying degrees of decrepitude. We wonder how much longer before they start to disappear, or if there is a movement to restore them.

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Some of the newer buildings are replicating the teakhouse style,
but in a more upscale fashion.

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I always love to discover the street art in any city, and while Chiang Mai does have some great examples, you have to look a bit. What else would you expect to find here but elephants?

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Northern Thailand is famous for its hill tribes, especially the Long-necked women, and there is considerable controversy about whether popping by their villages for a photo op helps or hurts them. When we walked past this image, I was struck by the art – the work looked very familiar. Sure enough, I Googled Facteon, and discovered he is a Mexican artist – we had seen his work in the Yucatan. Here is a link to his FB page for more examples of his incredible art : https://www.facebook.com/facteone/

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On one of our walks, we came across the Police Station with this attention-getting statue. So open to interpretation – I wonder if the body in his arms is just unconscious.

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We’re in Chiang Mai for another day before we continue our way north. I have a few more images to send your way about this area – just way too much to include in one blog. Blog part 2 in a day or two. There’ll be temples…this is one of them. I wanted to leave you with an orange Buddha and a sleeping dog who appears to be obeying the sign.

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Sukhothai: Dawn of Happiness

Sukhothai is a small city divided into two zones – the riverside New City, where the bulk of guesthouses, shops and restaurants are located, and Old City; the site of Sukhothai Historical Park, formerly known as Dawn of Happiness. New City is rather charmless; there would be no reason to visit if not for the historical park.

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We wandered around New City on our first day here, and were intrigued by these matching T-shirts. A kinder version of “I’m with Stupid”, but with the same twist – the  wearers would need to line themselves up appropriately before heading out.

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We also discovered the answer to a question we had about a fruit we kept seeing, and finally tried – green, apple-shaped, kind of pucker-y, not that sweet. Turns out it is guava. (or farang, the Thai name, also for foreigner). I was so surprised – I imagined guava would be soft and sweet, like mango or papaya. Working our way through Thailand’s many wonderful fresh fruits – one stand at a time.

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Time for the temples! Now I’m a fan of trudging around in 36 degree heat with 90% humidity as much as the next guy. As fascinating as ancient temples can be, after a few dozen they can fall into the camp of ABC (Another Bloody Church), and our sightseeing can quickly move from being engrossing to feeling obligatory. But when the view looks like this, the temples pull us in:

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Old City is located 12 km. from New City, and is easily accessible by songthaew, a truck-like conversion with bench seats that is short on comfort, but long on local colour. Since many of these drivers eat, smoke and text while they drive, we rely on the hanging flowers and talismans to keep us safe. Plus, it’s great entertainment for $1.

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The Sukhothai Historical Park was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site 25 years ago, but the ruins date back to the 14th century. It is a vast area, spread out over 70 sq. Km., encompassing the moated, walled old city and sprawling into the countryside. If you keep to the main sites, it can be done on foot, but we wanted to see as much as we could, so we rented bikes for the day. It added a lot to our visit – so much fun to cruise around and feel the wind (light breeze?)  at our backs.

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To give you an idea of the layout, this map shows the main temples (called wats) as well as the outlying areas. We stuck to the sites inside the walls, and visited Wat Si Chum, the large temple at the northern edge.

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The Park is gorgeous, but one delightful aspect of this area was the moats, the trees, lily ponds, and small lakes – all serving to soften and highlight the ruins and to provide much-appreciated shade.  Although there were great busloads of tourists, we often found ourselves alone – there is more than enough room for everyone.

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We began with the site’s largest and most important ruin, Wat Mahathat. It featured a number of chedi (the lotus-bud topped conical structures) and Buddhas and columns.

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We visited this same wat later in the day, from another angle and came upon these two gentlemen, lighting incense and praying. It is interesting to observe how Thais pray quietly and reverently in public outdoor places. Buddha provides great solace, in his many incarnations. It is a religion I know very little about and am curious to learn more.

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There were mobs of schoolchildren at the historical park. In many places in the park, they were lined up listening intently to their teachers. To our teacher friends and family – come and teach in Thailand –  these kids are a dream come true. Neat little uniforms, no acting out, very attentive.

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Whenever we ran into them, they were quite curious and friendly. “Hell-ooo”, they would call out, and then all giggle when we called back to them. Since we are finding Thai a very tricky language to get right, we were the cause of great amusement, even among the teachers. Below, the boys lined up to buy incense  to pray at the wat.

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The outer reaches of the park have both a stone wall and a moat. The moats were full of water lilies – so beautiful during the day. All that still water must bring out the mosquitoes at night.

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There were a couple of small islands with ruins, accessible by bridges. Such a painterly quality to this scene.

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Wat Si Siwai has three Khmer-style prang; a bit distinctive from the other wats.  We entered into the centre  prang and peered up inside. Nothing but a hole in the wooden roof and the unmistakable smell of bat guano.

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One photo op after another – this atmospheric shot as we pedalled past.

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And finally, we reached Wat Si Chum, just outside the gates. The 15m Buddha stares down from his perch in the square shrine. If you can see the man in the bottom right of the photo, you’ll get a sense of scale.

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One of the notable features of the Buddha are his giant, gold-fingernailed hands. I asked this young woman to pose beside them to give you an idea of their size.

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We’re into the rhythm of the road now – time has slowed to a dreamlike state and even though we may not get used to the heat, we’re figuring out how not to fight it. (Pulling at my hair and waving at my face has not worked so far.)

We’re heading north to Chiang Mai tomorrow and will spend at least a week there.

 

The Bridge on the River Kwai

This posting is dedicated to my dad, Keith Miller. Dad, you fought in Europe, not SEAsia and thankfully you were not a POW. But you experienced war and hunger and fear, and those experiences were life-changing for you. I have never known hunger and fear and war, and I owe that and my ability to travel freely and witness these sights to you.

I’ve not read the book, nor seen the movie, but the “real” Bridge on the River Kwai is a potent reminder of human cruelty, and what our world might have looked like had the  outcome of WWII been different.

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The Bridge on the River Kwai is located in the town of Kanchanaburi, which has built up a large tourism business around the bridge, the War Cemetery, the JEATH museum and the war museum.

We stayed for four nights at the Thai Garden Inn, across the river from town (the quiet side). This has been our home for the past four days – a relaxing respite.

 

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Our first night, we ate at a riverside restaurant just down the road. Walking at night is tricky; there are no shoulders and most drivers are quite unconcerned about pedestrian safety. Apparently it is up to us to stay alive. This was our first dinner – worth remaining alert for:

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The next day, we walked about 15 minutes to the entrance of the bridge. The railway from Thailand to Burma was built in 1943 to provide a secure supply route for the Japanese to make their way to India, as the sea routes were too risky. It was a total of 414 km., with 294 km. in Thailand, built entirely  by Asian forced labourers and Allied POWs. It became known as the Death Railway, as over 13,000 prisoners and 93,000 Asian labourers died during its construction. The bridge was built with 11 steel spans, and the rest were wood, and when the Allies bombed it in 1944, three spans were destroyed. There are frequent pullouts to stand on for safety, as a tourist train crosses it twice daily. Luckily, we arrived quite early, and had the bridge almost to ourselves.
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Looking over the River Kwai from a pullout.

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The JEATH museum is just down the road from the bridge – JEATH is an acronym for Japan, England, Australia, America, Thailand and Holland – representing the Allied POWS and Asian forced labourers involved in the building of the Thai-Burma Railway.
This is a section of the original track over the bridge.

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The JEATH Museum is difficult to go through. The savagery and tragic loss associated with this infamous railway are portrayed through life-size dioramas, photos and artifacts, and they grab you by the gut. This railway car is typical of how POWS were housed on their way to the camps.

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Japanese soldiers watching over the POWs.

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A poignant and understated expression of the futility of war

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Off we went to the War Cemetery. We had never visited a war cemetery before – there is nothing to celebrate here.

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The grounds are immaculate and beautifully cared for – a team of gardeners steadily at work weeding and planting and grass-cutting. The markers are identical, but for the names, ages, ranks and sentiments of loved ones. 6,982 Australian, Dutch and British POWs are laid to rest here, including two graves with the cremated remains of 300 soldiers.

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It was a moving and emotional experience to walk the rows and note the young ages and wonder who they left behind. Loss magnified many times.

Then, the most extraordinary thing happened. Three young girls started taking selfies – laughing, posing, all pouty lips and peace signs.  It was beyond disrespectful.  Young people might not understand the importance of a memorial or a monument – they are many generations removed, but it seems impossible to think anyone of any age would enter a cemetery and consider it just another backdrop for a selfie.  Stephen spoke to them, asking them please not to take selfies. They didn’t understand his words, but I think they got the message.

Yesterday, we headed up to Hellfire Pass Memorial – an 80 km. bus ride out of Kanchanaburi, up to the site of some of the most difficult rock cuts of the entire rail line. Hellfire Pass is so called because the light from the torches bouncing off the limestone and quartz rock illuminated the skeletal workers as they laboured at night – a scene from hell.

We began by visiting The Memorial Museum, which thoughtfully goes through the timeline of the railway construction, and outlines a number of written accounts from POWs who survived, as well as harrowing photos of those who did not.

The museum and clearing of the  old rail site at the cuttings was the dream of an Australian, Tom Morris. He was a POW for three years, and incredibly decided to return to the site of his torment in 1984. It was his desire to restore the area as a memorial to all who perished there, and with the help of the Australian government, he instigated the building of the museum and the restoration of the walking trails. Another Aussie POW, Peter Rushforth, who became a potter after the war, created the Peace Vessel as part of the display.
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There was an excellent audio accompaniment to the walk,  with first-person accounts submitted by former POWs. What really struck me was the ability of these men to survive after such brutality. One POW, who is a painter, told of his visit to the area decades later. During the war, the beauty of the mountains and the spring flowers had been enough to keep him going, and it was always his intent to return and paint those scenes. The photo below is of the valley and mountains beside the rock cut. Burma is just 40 km. away.

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We began our walk with food in our belly, water in our backpack and shoes on our feet. It was hot, and the going was a bit rough, but we were reminded of the conditions the POWs lived with and perished from. In this particular cut, they had to walk from their camp, which was 6 km. away. They slept on bamboo cots, and were often covered in lice and fleas. They were fed one cup of rice a day and very little water. Many of them had dysentery, cholera and malaria, and when they fell down or could not move fast enough, they were beaten, sometimes to death. They worked 16-18 hours a day under blistering sun, and under constant threat of abuse and beatings from the Japanese guards. As the war progressed, and the urgency for the railway line increased, the abuses grew worse. By the end, over 13,000 prisoners died of illness, malnutrition, and torture.
This section of the cutting was achieved by a tedious method called “Hammer and Tap”, which involved hammering out pieces of rock and breaking them down. This section is 73 metres long, and 25 metres deep – dug entirely by hand through jungle vegetation from the top to what became the railbed. If you look to the left of the cut, you can see flags and crosses – one of a number of shrines and memorials along the way.

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Most of the railway was dismantled after the war, but this small section of rail remains as part of the memorial.

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This was an extremely impactful experience, and I hope the pictures help to tell the story.

 

 

Hua Hin: from Royal resort town to Scandinavian getaway.

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Just three hours south of Bangkok, Hua Hin has been the resort residence of Thai royalty for decades.  With the arrival of the Hilton in the 90s, Hua Hin began to attract mass tourism from Europe and China, and with it, the inevitable  building boom dedicated to bringing in package tours. Condos, high-rise hotels and swank shopping malls have transformed this once sleepy fishing village; Hua Hin is in very real danger of losing its original charm. One hold-out – The Centara Grand Beach resort, complete with topiary and staff in pith helmets and jodhpurs, is a high-end and cultured nod to the past.

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The broad white beach is still a major draw, but the historic area around the fishing pier is slated for demolition. Apparently, the plan is to take out that whole area, and put in a boardwalk with upgraded shops and restaurants. Needless to say, this is not sitting well with the locals.

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Naresdamri’s seafront is filled with piers like this, offering waterfront seafood restaurants

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An example of the original shopfronts that are in danger of disappearing

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We walked out to the end of the main fishing pier (which will remain intact). This young boy sat in a lineup of fishing rods, carefully baiting his hook.

Fishing on the pier

Buckets of beautiful, white squid being cleaned, right on the dock.

Cleaning fish on the Hua Hin pier.

Fishing boats grounded by low tide.

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Hua Hin is a love it or hate it kind of place, and our first impressions were not that great. At first glance, it is a bit of an overgrown, tacky town, with sleazy commerce front and centre.  Beautiful young Thai women and much older white men are a common sight. Sex tourism is a huge thing in Thailand, and while I don’t want to start a debate about the ethics of men exploiting women’s dire economic states, I find it stomach-turning.  A number of blocks in the centre core come alive at night; it is not so much a stroll as a scene.  Even Stephen and I were solicited, which really does prove there is something for everyone here. We laughed, they laughed back.

Massage parlours line the streets – one needs to be a little careful about choosing. The girls tend to sit outside and call out, “hello, massage.” Prices run about the same – $10-$15 an hour – but the credentials bear checking out first. Chances are if the girls are in heels and hot pants, there may be a happy ending. Legit parlours will look like the one below:

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Slowly, though, Hua Hin began to grow on us. We discovered our favourite places to eat, and spent hours wandering the streets, and let it all wash over us.  Hua Hin is a popular destination for Scandinavian tourists, but we also heard German and Dutch being spoken everywhere. Canadians and Americans – we are in very low numbers here.

We met up yesterday with our friends from Nanaimo, Chris and Sue. They have lived in Thailand in the past, and come each year to a small town just south of here. Chris met up with us at our hotel and brought us treats from the market – small “cakes” with sweet and savoury fillings. As he took us on a tour of the town, we passed the lady who makes them.

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Our Thai food education continued as we made our way through the market. Tamarind is very popular – this is what they look like.

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The fish simply cannot get any fresher – everything that is sold in the market comes right from the waters of Hua Hin. The prawns are massive, the lobsters are tiny, crab comes in a variety of sizes and colours, and the squid are glistening and pure white. There is almost no fish smell going through that part of the market – the products are that fresh.

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Some of the staples of Thai cooking – lemongrass, lemon leaves and a particular type of ginger.

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We grabbed a Songthaew ( a collectivo-style truck with bench seats – one just stands at the side of the road and waves them down) to Chris and Sue’s place about half hour from Hua Hin. After a roadside lunch of papaya salad, we headed up to Monkey Mountain. There is a temple there and a giant Buddha, as well as staggering views of the town and bay, but as the name suggests, the big attraction are the hundreds of monkeys. Our first sighting was this fellow perched on a boat as we approached the hill.

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It was such an incongruous sight, much like seeing a giraffe bellied-up to the bar. Like any other wild animal sighting, it was exciting until we discovered there were more where he came from. Many, many more…

Monkey Mountain

There are hundreds of these monkeys, and tourists are warned not to feed them, and not to carry food around, as they will surely come and snatch it from you.  All of this was fun from a distance, but as we made our way down the hill, Chris observed,”Well, we’re walking right through the monkeys.” And indeed we did, without mishap – the big males, the mothers carrying their babies, the young ones – they all scampered past us

After such a wonderful day, we ended on a high note – dinner at a weekend market with new friends.    It is Festival of the Lanterns, and the entrance to the park was festooned with lit-up fabric horses.

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The Cicada market is a collection of food stalls and handicrafts, ringed by tables on one side and entertainment at the stage at the back. You make the round of the stalls, much like a giant buffet table, decide what dish most appeals and then circle back and order.

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I ordered a huge salad with pomelos, shrimp, noodles, vegetables – spicy at first, but then simply delectably flavourful. That is the joy of Thai cooking – fresh food, not too much meat or fish, lots of veggies, lovely noodles, exquisite spicing – so nuanced, so healthy – I could eat like this for the rest of my life, and I probably should. This was one of the curries.

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After dinner, we checked out the crafts – all of them a cut above the usual market fare, and at incredible prices. Oh, such temptation – but what do I buy that I can carry for the next three months?  Thanks Chris and Sue, for such a thoroughly enjoyable day and for all your insider tips to being in Thailand.

Chris, Sue and friends at Cicada Market

One last note…our unseasonable weather.  We’ve been told weeks will go by without a drop of rain and this year everything has changed. There has been so much rain in the south (site of Thailand’s famous beaches), that roads and railway tracks have been washed out, so access to the beaches and the islands is gone for the immediate future. We’ve had rain in Hua Hin every day, but today it has been non-stop and torrential. We’re heading north tomorrow to Kanchanaburi, where The Bridge on the River Kwai is situated. Next time I post, it should be in sunshine.

From riverboats to back alleys – discovering old Bangkok

Since we had just four days in Bangkok, we decided to stay in the historic area and concentrate on seeing the temples, the old shopfronts and the river and canals. Travelling by boat in Bangkok is highly entertaining, and in some cases, the only way to arrive at a destination. The Chao Phraya river is the main waterway – wide, muddy, and churning – and the much narrower canals criss-cross the city. In both cases, you can go big or go local – the tourist boats cost anywhere from $15 to $40, and the local “taxi” service will set you back between 40 and 60 cents. The view is democratic – whichever boat you choose.

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We hopped on a canal boat today and got an up close and personal look at Bangkokian river life. Many of the riverfront homes are crumbling and derelict, but a number are obviously making an effort. We wondered what their future will be as modern Bangkok encroaches.

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We don’t know who this gentleman is, but he looks like he might be a significant Thai figure. We would not trust that rickety footbridge, prayer flags or not. Believe me, this is not water you want to fall into.

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We ventured into Chinatown yesterday, which put my rat-ometer on high alert. I have a major rodent phobia; such an advanced case that sightings can set off a traumatic event, and no, I’m not kidding. I jump at fluttering leaves. Bangkok is rat heaven, with the canals, the garbage and the outdoor food stalls. Chinatown ramps that up several notches, so it was with much trepidation that we made our way through the labyrinthine alleys. Luckily, I saw nothing more alarming than this fellow on a spit, and that was enough to kick in my gag reflex.

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So, with my appetite shot by the sight of this poor little piglet, we opted for a fantastic version of a Thai staple – banana pancakes, topped with condensed milk. Yum!

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Otherwise – Bangkok’s Chinatown was everything a self-respecting Chinatown should be: dirty, smelly, noisy, mysterious and vaguely menacing. As in all other parts of the city, motorcycles go wherever they please.

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With everything from knock-off clothes, vegetables, watches and household goods for sale, one could spent hours wandering and getting lost. I got a kick out of this stand, devoted to rubber duckies. I guess the owners could not take it any more, and posted several signs (in English only) pleading for a little peace.

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Most of the buildings in Chinatown are very old and there does not appear to be an effort to restore them. As well as feeling a bit confused about the dubious state of this building, we marvelled at the electrical set-up.

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The Thai people lost their beloved King in October – he had reigned for 70 years. A state of mourning for one year was declared and many citizens will wear black for that entire time.  His image is everywhere – on billboards, shrines and storefronts.

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In honour of the King’s passing, Thai nationals are granted free admission to all temples for the year, and during the New Year’s period, line-ups to get into the major attractions were staggering. With dozens of temples to choose from, we decided to forego the Grand Palace, and chose instead to visit Wat Pho, home of the city’s largest reclining Buddha, and largest collection of Buddhas. Who could resist? Definitely not this woman, who was delighted to discover a black Buddha and struck a pose.

Black Buddha

The Reclining Buddha is no less impressive, stretching out 46 metres in length and 15 metres in height. His toes are inlaid with mother of pearl.

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The Wat Pho grounds and buildings were stunning and slightly whimsical, with stone figures, topiary, colourful pagodas and small ponds. We spent a couple of hours happily wandering around.

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We also visited the Golden Buddha – the world’s largest.  It is made of pure gold, measures 12 feet in diameter and 15 feet high and is 700 years old. If this magnificent structure was in Canada, it would be roped off and alarmed; in Mexico, there would be guards with AK-47s. Here, in this gentle Buddhist land, there was but one security man checking his cell phone.

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We also checked out the Golden Mount – a temple built on a man-made mountain. There are 344 steps to get to the top, which is not nearly as daunting as it sounds, as the steps are very low, and the climb is in stages, and also mostly in the shade.

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There were bells to ring all the way up – each with a different tonal quality. There were two giant gongs to strike – a Thai woman told us to hit three times for good luck!

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360 degree views from the top – all city for as far as the eye can see.  Bangkok is notorious for terrible air quality, which we hadn’t noticed until today – the smog was really visible. We’ve spotted a number of people inhaling from small tubes, like Vicks inhalers. I suspect they do a good job of cleaning nasal passages and perhaps masking street smells.

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Arriving in Bangkok to begin our travels has been a bit intense. The heat, traffic, smog, crowds, noise and dirt of Bangkok has been challenging at times. It is a fascinating place, and we have barely scratched the surface, but after four days here, I haven’t found something to grab onto. Possibly it is because it is such a foreign culture (to me), and I have no previous frame of reference. We’re keen to see other parts of Thailand now, and tomorrow we arrive in Hua Hin, a seaside resort about three hours south of here. We’ll be there for four nights, and then have the delightful dilemma of figuring out which island we want to visit. Here, a final shot of Bangkok to leave you with; talk again soon.
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The beauty and the beast of Bangkok

We’ve been in Thailand for three days and are just surfacing from our fog of jet lag, culture shock and temperature change. On the advice of friends who have been to Thailand many times, we booked a hotel close to the Bangkok airport for two nights before tackling the city. It was a sound plan – after 20 hours of travel, we weren’t able to do much more than wander up the street in time to see the New Year’s Eve fireworks. The next day we bobbed in and out of a slightly woolly-headed state of disorientation. Rather than try to sightsee, we opted to hang out by the pool, read and have naps.

Thai masseuseAlthough I did have my first Thai massage – this lovely lady pounded the living daylights out of me for an hour.

She poked, pressed and pummelled my body until every last bit of airplane tension was gone. The traditional Thai massage is not exactly relaxing, but it is very effective.

Our arrival in the city was pure Miller-Burr – we got lost. We took the SkyTrain from the airport to our stop, and then trudged down to the street, loaded up with our backpacks and gasping from the heat – only to discover we had no idea where to go from there. We grabbed a tuk-tuk, which was an exhilarating experience. The photo below is not our tuk-tuk, but will give you an idea of what car and driver look like while waiting for business.

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The driver of our tuk-tuk (an unstable-looking vehicle which is a cross between a motorized rickshaw and a utility trailer), propelled us into heavy traffic, merrily changing lanes and cutting off tour buses. We hurtled along for about 20 minutes before our driver realized he was lost. After a number of consultations with other drivers and traffic cops, we finally arrived at our hotel. We were warned that it was “a bit difficult to find, but you can imagine our chagrin as we entered this alleyway.

entrance to our hotel

Once we got past the hanging clothes, piles of garbage and makeshift cooking stands, it was a great relief to discover our hotel was everything it had been promised online – clean, secure, air-conditioned, with friendly staff and a welcoming lobby. We are staying in the old section of Bangkok, and narrow alleyways are part of the landscape. So are smells. You are assaulted at every turn by an odiferous cloud of sewage, garbage, cooking and cleaning smells.

Our first afternoon in the big city was both an exploration of our area and a crash course on surviving the streets. Warning signs are everywhere.

img_6082While Thailand is quite safe for tourists, the biggest threats are crimes of opportunity. A common crime is having one’s bag grabbed by thieves on motorcycles, whose modus operandi is to pull up beside someone, slash the strap of their bag and drive off. Duly noted – I bought my PacSafe bag with cut-proof straps and now confidently stride with bag firmly strapped across my chest. Major tourist attractions and temples all have signs warning of pickpockets. Typical scams to beware of are touts approaching tourists with offers to take them on tours, or taxis that offer fixed rates; both tend to involve being led on an annoying tour to friends’ stores for high-pressure selling. Almost without fail, they pick me out of the crowd – my excited, smiling face is their clue to move in. So far, so good – I have resisted the urge to buy fake gems or discuss their cousins in Montreal.

One of our first stops was the famous (infamous) Khao San Road, which is backpacker heaven and hell for anyone else who might want quiet and/or hygiene. We saw this sign pleading with people to be a bit more respectful.

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Packed to the rafters with hostels, guesthouses, massage parlours, noodle houses and tourist shops selling incense, jewellery and rayon schmatta, Khao San is the Bourbon Street of Bangkok. And, as we have discovered in our short time here, Bangkok is a city of massive contrasts and contradictions. Just around the corner from Khao San we discovered this little oasis of trees, tidy restaurants and relative calm.

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Thai people eat all the time – mealtimes just seem to blend into a 24-hour orgy of snacking and drinking fresh smoothies, and eating delicious fruit, punctuated by sit-down meals. While I admire that spirit, I haven’t quite caught up with those appetites – too hot, too busy guzzling water. There must be thousands of restaurants in this city but we’ve been concentrating on the street food, and have hit the motherlode a couple of times. Last night we discovered a place called “Jok”; an outdoor grill serving about 20 tables non-stop. Simply delicious – we ordered pad thai and chicken with cashews – so fresh and perfect – exactly what we wanted. We’ve decided that we won’t notice the pans of dirty dishes sitting in tubs on the ground and we won’t notice them being swabbed indifferently with a dirty cloth before being used again. Actually, we will notice them, we will just change our perspective and not get too fussed, or else we may as well pack up now and go back home.

joke street food

We shared a table with a young Dutch woman from Gouda (pronounced how-da, as I discovered, not goo-da, as I have been mispronouncing all these years). Most of the people we’ve been meeting are European – we have yet to meet a fellow Canadian. Tonight we sat beside three men from France who are in Thailand on a buying trip for their clothing store back home. These encounters are a big part of the travels – they are so enriching.

Traffic in Bangkok is famous. To begin with, Thailand has left-side drive, which means we are at a disadvantage as we peer down in one direction and forget to look the other way -our orientation is all wrong. Chaotic does not begin to describe the scene of dozens upon dozens  of motorcycles and scooters dodging around trucks and buses and cars; creating their very own rules of the road, and taking no prisoners. All vehicles change lanes and cut one another off, and play fast and loose with traffic lights. Accidents are frequent and deadly – in the 3-day period between December 29-31, there were 1700 road accidents in the country, with 199 road deaths. Pedestrians take their very lives into their hands as they cross the road – so far, I have been reduced to clinging to Stephen’s hand, and mincing along in little bunny hops to get to the other side. My personal goal is to walk the roads like I own them, as is the Thai way.

So…our first impressions of Bangkok are exactly what we anticipated they would be. We knew we would feel overwhelmed, we knew we would experience culture shock and we knew we would suffer from the heat and humidity. But there is so much to see here, so much to learn about and so much of ourselves that needs a reboot, that being here for a few days is very welcome. We went to a magnificent temple today – Wat Pho. I will tell you about it in a posting in a couple of days, but I’d like to leave you with a final impression of grace and benediction. While we were at the temple, we came upon an extraordinary scene of a  monk applying great lashings of icy water upon the heads of willing supplicants. We both underwent this treatment – supposedly to bring us good luck. Possibly the monk was having fun at our expense, but it was worth the insurance for a bright and positive 2017.

Stephen being anointed