If you're currently on Vancouver Island you'll be impressed that we made it off the island Sunday. It involved getting to the airport 6 hours early, watching all the flights gradually cancel as the sunny day turned snow white, a much-longer-than-expected ride from a senior Air Canada crew member (thanks Sue!) almost but not quite to the Swartz Bay ferry, the Pat Bay highway having become a parking lot, a one-km trudge down the highway in a blizzard carrying luggage and dressed for southeast Asia, walking past hundreds of newly arrived ferry passengers waiting for rides that couldn't get through the snow, a ferry ride, a bus ride through deserted snow-covered lower mainland streets to YVR, and then, finally, into the air and onto our journey. Whew.
Our first day in a new town so we spent it exploring the neighborhood.
Once in the past a farang [non-Thai] novice actually thanked a woman for a handful of rice. She was so offended she came to the monastery and told the senior monk she and her family would never give alms to the wat again. Devotees give to the robe, not to the wearer. They believe it is a ritual for the making of merit, for a better rebirth. If a monk thanks the giver, then by treating it as a personal favour, merit is not gained. Tim Ward, What the Buddha Never Taught
This morning we dressed conservatively (we wore long pants, not shorts) so we could go inside Wat Phra Singh, Wat Phan Tao, and Wat Chedi Luang. There are lots of wats in Chiang Mai.
So what is a wat? A wat is a Buddhist temple. It contains several buildings, at minimum a chedi, a viharn and a bot, and is enclosed by a wall. The bot is the main prayer room and the viharn is an assembly hall. The chedi contains relics. They might be relics of the Buddha or remains of a king or a very important monk. Depending on their financial means and the number of monks, a temple may also contain other structures like a sala, a scripture hall, living quarters for the monks, and a school. Wat Phra Singh, just down the block from our hotel, fills a city block and includes a school.
Or Mexico or France or Bali or Greece, to name the last few places we've visited. Yes indeed, Thailand is different from the other countries on this list so, on this criteria alone, I can declare our trip a success.
But let me back up a bit. Paul and I choose a travel destination to satisfy a curiosity, like what's Greece like, or to do something we enjoy, like hike in the Alps. At the same time we know going in to manage, if not minimize, expectations, especially if it's the former, a new place, and that has served us well. So this is a long intro to saying that I've mixed feelings about Thailand. In this post I'll share some positives.
Our hotel, the Phra Singh Village, is one of the nicest I've stayed at. Beautiful buildings, gardens and pool, large comfortable rooms, conveniently located, and lots of amenities, like a gym and a couple of spas. Their delicious and ever-changing breakfast would rate as the best if only they could figure out desserts, but then I don't think this is a dessert country. France and Italy needn't worry when it comes to desserts.
Speaking of food, eating in Thailand is wonderful. Flavorful, fresh, vegetable-rich. Plus you can eat well for very little change (as long as you don't want wine). Nice.
The people are friendly. But I wouldn't place them at the top of my list of friendly people, up there with Mexico and Greece. There's something artificial in their friendliness, or maybe it's the way they express it, a smiling subservience that makes me feel uncomfortable.
The temples are curious and certainly photo-worthy. I'm also enjoying observing Buddhists in action, especially having just read Tim Ward's book What the Buddha Never Taught, on becoming a monk.
What else is positive? It feels safe here. There's not much cigarette smoke and not much dog poo. If you like a massage or strolling an open-air market there are more of these than you can shake a stick at.
Since we've more time in Thailand I hope I'll add some more to the positive column. In a future post, some annoyances.
Chiang Mai is said to have three must-see temples. We've seen two. The third, Wat Doi Suthep, is up on a mountain, about 45 minutes away. So after breakfast we walked down the block to Wat Phra Singh to look for a red truck with the words Doi Suthep on the front. It didn't take long, and after getting a price, 50 baht each (a little over $CAD 2) we piled into the back of the pickup to wait for it to fill. Once there were ten passengers the driver cranked up the engine and we were off.
I sat furthest back as it's least claustrophobic. I had a birds eye view of the vehicles behind us as we raced up the mountain, leaning in the curves, and hanging on for dear life.
Once at the temple parking lot we piled out, paid the driver, then followed the crowd up the cool staircase to the temple.
Wat Doi Suthep is a very popular temple, I guess it's because of the view, though the air is currently so dirty you can't see anything. This wasn't a surprise, it's been like this since we arrived, it's the time of year in Thailand when air quality sucks.
Once at the temple I found many people worshipping the various Buddhas. Some were on the ground, some lighting candles, and some were walking in a procession around a gold stupa while holding yellow flowers. Whatever floats your boat, eh.
Today was our last day in Chiang Mai. Tomorrow we catch the 8:50 train to Bangkok. I'll miss the delicious and cheap food, the comfortable hotel, and the old town chock-a-block with temples.
Given a choice we'll take a train over flying, so to get to Bangkok we took the 8:50 #8 train. It isn't a short trip, it takes over ten and a half hours to make the 700 kms. The train itself is small, three cars, all second class seats, so there isn't anywhere to walk to like a restaurant car. It comes with a/c and a meal.
We found the ride long and uncomfortable. Despite how it appears in the photos the train has seen better days. The seat padding is worn out. Paul's seat kept spontaneously reclining. The tiny toilet is a hole in the floor. And the poor train slows and struggles at the least incline which didn't inspire confidence. But it did finally get us to our destination.
I've left the best, or rather the worst, for last. The meal. I could describe it as worthy of a Survivor challenge. It appeared to be an invitation to food poisoning. It made Air Canada's offerings haute cuisine. Ha ha, I can laugh now.
We were served rice and two mackerels, one sweet and one spicy, all pre packaged so, said Paul, it must be safe. First off, looking at the local rivers I don't think I want to eat any fish. I won't show you the actual mackerel or you'll think I needed my head examined for having eaten it, which I did. It was very spicy, the crunchy chunks of fish absolutely disgusting looking but I was hungry and I wanted it out of my way asap as I also feared the nasty brown fish sauce would spill on me --- the rickety tray tables looked ready to go --- and then I'd smell of fish all day. I'm writing this, oh 12 hours later so I guess my decision was ok, no signs of illness. Yet.
As to the scenery, which is one reason to take a train versus a plane, it was interesting for awhile. Leaving Chiang Mai one got occasional glimpses of the outlines of hills, the smog obscuring details. We saw lots of birds, rice paddys, fields of sugar cane, water buffalo, cows, fields of solar panels, temples everywhere, big hilltop buddhas, rice fields burned, and endless little villages.
We were awfully glad when we pulled into Bangkok, in the dark night, where we availed ourselves of the train station bathroom and then walked out into the car-packed streets where we made death-defying runs to cross, then to look for our curious little hotel. But that's a story for tomorrow.
The from-the-train photos kind of suck because they are taken through dirty reflect-y glass and the train is moving, albeit slowly, but I figure sometimes a crappy pic is better than none.
Our Bangkok hotel, Loy La Long, is in a 100-year old house built on stilts over the Chao Phraya river, the wide wet highway that cuts through Bangkok. The hotel is tucked away behind a temple and has but six small rooms, each a different colour. Our room is the black room. Yes, black. Not my first choice but it was what was available. This is the second hotel we've stayed at with a black hotel room, the previous being in Lisbon. Can't say I recommend black as a colour scheme but I can live with it for a short while.
The Loy La Long is long on character but short on comforts, pretty much the opposite of Phra Singh Village in Chiang Mai. The building is a dark rambling structure where you are massaged by the sound of waves from the river which is splashing directly underneath the floor, just a meter or so below. In fact you can see water through the cracks between the floor boards. What with the eye-level river traffic and the sound of the waves my first thought on arrival was that we were on a boat. Weird, but you quickly get used to it.
This indoor food market in Bangkok's Chinatown goes for many blocks.
I'm pretty convinced that most everyone in Thailand spends their day either preparing food, selling food, or eating. Food is everywhere.
Bangkok is pretty f-ing hot and humid so to escape we did what seemingly half the population does, we went to the mall. I know what you're thinking, you've three days in exotic Bangkok and you're going to the mall. I'm thinking it too, in fact I hesitate to write it, and it really is something I would normally never do because I hate hate hate shopping. But a friend suggested it (thanks, Linda!) and it seemed a good idea. So after a leisurely breakfast on the hotel balcony we set off for the nearest metro station.
Half way between the Loy La Long hotel and the station we walked by the golden Buddha, which has an interesting backstory. It was encased in plaster and accidentally dropped, chipping the plaster which revealed the solid gold Buddha underneath. That the 3m tall plaster statue weighed 5 tons might have been a reveal, too. Upon the discovery a four-storey (!) marble building was constructed to hold the 3m statue. It is now a tourist attraction. Admission to see this Buddha isn't free of charge, though, so I've not visited as I don't want to pay any more money to see another Buddha. I've seen enough Buddhas. I have achieved Buddha satiation.
So we walked to the metro. Now walking in Bangkok is not bad, if anything it's sort of the complement to walking in Chiang Mai. Bangkok's sidewalks1 are wide and clean and in ship shape whereas Chiang Mai's2 range between crappy and non existent and what sidewalks exist are used as parking for the ubiquitous motor bikes and food vendors. Also you often find extension cords running to and fro on Chiang Mai's sidewalks because those food vendors need electricity.
So, kudos Bangkok. However, Chiang Mai lacks the many-laned streets of the far bigger city so you've a shorter distance to run for your life when crossing. Bottom line: in Thailand, cars rule.
Anyway, going to the mall gave us the opportunity to try out the Bangkok metro which works well though what's with each line3 having its own ticketing? The metro let us off at the MBK mall (over 2,000 stores), eight floors of claustrophobic hallways with stores grouped by type, like floor five has maybe a hundred cell phone and cell phone accessories stores, floor six is cameras plus ugly and torturously-uncomfortable furniture that makes your house resemble a faux palace. I kid you not. How one decides whom to buy from I've no idea. I need a new phone case for my trusty iPhone but faced with so many choices I just threw up my hands and left.
We left the MBK mall and crossed on an overhead walkway, thus avoiding the nasty task of crossing the street, to enter another mall and then after that mall we passed into a third mall next door and after that we walked into yet another mall next to that. The last three malls, I can't believe I am reviewing malls, the last three were far nicer than the first, more like the north American flavour, with the usual stores you see everywhere, in fact some appeared several times there is so much space dedicated to retail.
The malls were all packed with people, shopping and eating at the extensive food area. We didn't buy anything except lunch. The only items that interested me were yet another Fuji lens4 and a white Aston Martin (one floor featuring high-end car dealers) but the pricing wasn't tempting, Canada actually being cheaper for once, plus there's the problem of getting it home. And no I didn't really consider a $1m Aston.
1Of course I'm speaking for the infinitesimally small bit of Bangkok we've seen.
2We saw enough of Chiang Mai to make this broad statement.
3Actually there are only two ticketing systems for the four metro lines.
4One cannot have too many Fuji lenses.
Our last day in Thailand.
Hits: The food, the food, the food. Bangkok's river. Phra Singh Village hotel in Chiang Mai. Loy La Long hotel in Bangkok. Chiang Mai street markets. Mango shakes. EVA airlines.
Misses: Too much Chiang Mai, not enough Bangkok. Too many temples. Maybe I should have gone to see some elephants.
In summary I liked Bangkok more than expected and Chiang Mai less. Chiang Mai is not an attractive town and it's a challenging place to walk which is a shame as it's sized right for walking and the temperatures are marginally more comfortable. Bangkok just looks cleaner, is more attractive, and is easier walking. If only it weren't so hot and humid.
Next stop, Ubud.
We arrived in Ubud mid-day today after a four-hour flight. Since I've blogged from Ubud previously I'll spare you more photos.
Ha ha, just kidding.
Just to wrap up Thailand I've a few photos from our last day in Bangkok when we took an orange-flag boat upriver to the Thailand National Museum. The boat ride costs less than a dollar and is well worth it though it can be crowded.