Thailand 9 – Chiang Rai

Sometimes fortune just smiles on you when you travel.  Today was one of those days. We had driven to a small town to pick up a long-tail boat for a ride down the river. As we arrived, we discovered the village was about to start an “elephant feast.”  Once a year the village puts together a long feast table piled high with bananas, watermelons, sugar cane, avocados and other treats and lets their working elephants gorge themselves. They are thanking the elephants for their year of hard work in the fields.

As we arrived, four people were holding bamboo rods in a grid and banging them together, as  villagers tried to dance among the banging rods.  Most tried valiantly, but ended up with mangled feet as they missed a step and fell among the bamboo trap.  Finally, two young women who clearly knew what they were doing, stepped in and danced together elegantly among the chopping bamboo, to the cheers of the watching crowd (upper-left).

Roughly 20 elephants were then led in to stand around the buffet table.  At a command, they all reached for the table of food with their trunks and started to feast.  After a couple minutes, the villagers were allowed to come into the compound and feed the elephants (middle).  Evelyn even got into the act, feeding “her” elephant sugar cane and then a bunch of bananas (lower-right photo by Wi).

After the festivities were over, we boarded two long-tail boats and rode down the river for half an hour.

Chiang Rai has three famous “art temples,” of which we visited two. These are not really religious Wats, but rather temples and museums surrounding an artist’s vision.  The first we visited was the Black Temple. Baan Dam Museum is a collection of 40 wood buildings featuring works by the artist Thawan Duchanee. This art temple is also known as “hell”.  There are skulls of numerous animal species, skins of alligators and others, antique guns on walls, etc.

There was one group of approximately 20 young Chinese women all dressed in red that seemed to be celebrating a university graduation together. Their vivid red dresses provided a nice foreground to the otherwise dark scenes (lower-right).

The next day, we visited the White Temple, known by locals as “heaven”. Another artist from Chiang Rai, Chalermchai Kositpipat (top right), dedicated him self to create art with a different vision and funded the project with his own money. He wanted to create art that people would remember and talk about. He started his project 20 years ago, and, says that he expects the project to take another 50 years to complete.  The artist himself is on site most days, and is very approachable.

Be sure get here early in the morning before the tourists show up. When first entering the grounds,  you pass over a small bridge and look down into what is obviously a depiction of Dante’s Inferno (center).  As you wander the grounds, the buildings are all extremely elaborate and ornate, harking back to the level of detail normally associated with the Middle Ages.

Walk around the grounds and look closely at the various statues, including those emerging from the walls, and you begin to wonder if you have tripped into Universal Studios.  You will see statues of the Teenage Mutant Turtles, the alien coming out of a stomach, Marvel Comic heroes, the Terminator (with half his face missing, from the final scene in the movie when he was chasing the hero through the machine shop), and dozens of others.

At night, we went to another market.  As the temperatures cool, this is a good place to spend time watching people, nibbling snacks, and simply enjoying the weather. We found one vendor tonight who was selling barbecued cockroaches (lower-right) and grubs (lower-left).  Alas, we had already eaten dinner, so had to pass on these delicacies…

Thailand 8 – Mae Salong

We started this morning by visiting a tea plantation (Tea 101), where the tea was actively being harvested.  We were allowed to wander into the fields to see and photograph the workers up close.  We saw the women (no men) either using scissors or simply tearing the new top leaves off the plants. Afterwards, we had a tea tasting, which is similar to wine tasting, in that we were given a progression of tea types, and told how to smell the aroma before sipping, etc. We sampled their green, red, jasmine, and a ginseng teas. I never did learn how to properly flip the tea cup upside down without spilling or burning my fingers.

We then walked around the ruins of the old 12th century city of Chiang Saen, Wat Pa Sak, one of the oldest temples in Thailand.

This is a relatively small and seldom visited temple, compared to many of the others we have seen on this trip.  We did learn the difference between a Wat and a Pagoda though — a Pagoda is solid and cannot be entered, while a Wat is intended to be entered and worshiped while inside.

We made a side trip to a traditional hill-tribe village, to see them in their native environment.  Many of the inhabitants had small handicrafts they made for sale, but these people clearly lived here, rather than just being set up for tourists.

Nikki, from our group, bought a small handwoven item from one woman. When Nikki then asked if she could be photographed with the woman, the woman’s husband came over all smiles and wanted to have his photograph taken too.  The result is the center image above.

The next stop was a small opium museum, where we learned about the origins of the long neck Karen women and saw a model of an 8-foot long catfish from the nearby river.  While the internal scenes in the museum were not photographically very interesting, the statues outside going down to the museum were beautiful.

Our last stop of the day was at the Mae Fah Luang Botanical Gardens.  It was meticulously maintained and colorful.  I found the greenhouse, where they were preparing the next season of plants, the most interesting (bottom-left and bottom-center).

Wi was our Thai guide throughout, and one of the owners of All Points East, our tour operator.  On the right image, you see her attempting to demonstrate a wooden mechanical ferris wheel.  Unfortunately, it required people sitting in each of the four positions to work, and nobody else in the group wanted to try this death-defying contraption!

Thailand 7 – Chiang Saen

We were all supposed to leave the hotel this morning at 5:00AM, so we could hike to the top of a local peak for what was promised to be an unsurpassed sunrise experience. The forecast was for more polluted air, so personally I  decided a couple extra hours sleep sounded better. Evelyn and the rest of the group did the hike… ☺ 

Later, we walked along the Mekong river.  There was a market here, but with a twist.  Beyond the few vendors selling food for immediate consumption, the bulk of the people were hauling their food, furniture and goods down a boat ramp, and loading it all on various boats.  These people were buyers from Laos, across the river. Each person had to first visit the Customs and Immigration office, before being allowed to load or depart.

Wandering around town tonight, we found yet another night market. There were unique mechanical devices simulating fans for keeping the flies away.  Even though we are technically still in the Winter here in March, it is pretty darn hot every day — reaching into the mid 90’s F each day.  The night markets have sprung up to allow people to do their shopping in the evening, when the weather is much more pleasant.

The cuisine has changed to Chinese food in this area, since the local people migrated from Yunnan province in China.  The hotels here are very basic, and not as nice as others we have experienced on this trip.

Thailand 6 – Pha Tang

Every morning  at 7:00AM, the monks go to the temple in Pha Tang to receive food and alms from the local people. The head monk offers daily blessings in return.  We got up early to see the people prepare the food and watched the procession, as shown above.

Along the way, we came across some farm workers in a field harvesting scallions. We were told that the scallions are generally larger, but that the meager rains this year have stunted the crop.

The Nam Tok Phu Saung national park is a popular place for families to enjoy the day, while the children play in the pool under a gentle hot waterfall, allowing everyone to escape the heat of the day. There was a school field trip the day we visited.

Thailand 5 – Phayao

Phayao is our next stop on the hidden Northern Thailand tour. On our way there, we started with an early morning hike to the top of one of the neighboring mountains, to see the truly spectacular Wat Chalerm Phrakiat, perched atop a jagged limestone outcrop. This is difficult to reach, as you first drive up a winding steep road, then hire a pickup truck taxi with a crazy driver to jarringly take you about 1 Km further, then finally get out and walk.  After 300 meter (1000 ft) or so of mostly level road, you come to a metal walkway that looks rather imposing.

You then start the real climb — 400 meter (1500 ft) to the temple, at a roughly 30 degree slope.  Just as you are sure you can’t go any further (several Chinese tourists we saw on our way down needed a bit of encouragement — “just around the corner. You can do it!”), you pop out on top.

The view would be spectacular on a clear day.  As is, the air was so thick with smoke that we could not really see very far, and the reward for the climb was seeing the small Wat with its complex of shrines and pagodas, where we could beat the gong and hear the resonating sound from it (see and hear video at end of this post).

Yet another night market was probably our favorite part of this town. People are friendly, food smells and tastes great, and often watching the preparation of the treats is a treat unto itself.

We had just had dinner elsewhere, which we mumbled and grumbled about as we explored more of the the market. We really wanted to stop and taste everything, but were too full for more than a nibble.

Thailand 4 – Lampang

Lampang is the third largest city in Northern Thailand, but is seldom visited by tourists. Since we are specifically targeting rarely seen areas of Thailand on this trip, this colonial city is a perfect stop for us. In the 19th century, Lampang was prominent in the teak industry, and beautiful colonial Thai-style wood villas and historic Buddhist temples prevail.

We have seen several cities around the world, including our home of Cuenca, Ecuador, where murals are scattered around the town in an effort to add art and reduce graffiti.  Lampang does that, with some truly beautiful murals.  The one shown center above, has evidence of being freshly painted, as some leaves hanging from an overhead tree still had fresh paint splattered on them.

Wat Phra Kaeo Don Tao was built between 1782 and 1809, and dominates the old town area. It is maintained meticulously, and there is evidence of some continuing minor construction.

Throughout Thailand, the market is a focus of community activity, with many residents shopping daily for the ingredients for their lunch and dinner at home.  The food looks so good that we periodically gave in for quick snacks, despite taking most of our meals with the tour group in various restaurants specializing in the cuisine for each area. The vendors are always friendly, greeting us with smiles and welcoming our cameras.

People around old town are always fun to watch.  One thing we noted is that the traffic is fairly sparse in these remote cities.  Unfortunately, they still have very bad pollution due to their practice of burning the fields before planting season.  The weather app I use on my iPhone listed the air quality as “this is one of those days your doctor warned you about.  Don’t go outside!” 

We could easily have enjoyed spending more time in this charming city.

Other scenes from around town.  Statues are everywhere. The power distribution wiring is a rat’s nest (lower-left), as we find in many parts of Thailand.  As the sun began to set, some gorgeous reflections of the more elaborate colonial buildings began to glow along the calm river.

Just before the sun dropped below the horizon, the sky lit up briefly into fiery reds and yellows.

Thailand 3 – Sukhothai

Now that we have left Bangkok, we will be spending the next two weeks exploring some off-the-beaten tracks of Northern Thailand. Places where few tourists travel, and where English is often not spoken — which is why we like having a bilingual guide with us to navigate the hotels, restaurants, markets and general interaction with the locals.

Our first stop is in Sukhothai, a rural city north of Bangkok. There was a morning market a couple blocks away from our hotel, so we headed there at 6:30AM to check it out. One of the scenes we saw repeated were Buddhist monks traveling from their temples to the markets at dawn, where they were offered food and alms by the local people.  Many vendors would put some of their food  in the monk’s pot, which would then be followed by the monk offering blessings in exchange.

This was primarily a food market, where locals would come and buy food to cook for meals that day. Fresh seafood, frogs, beef, pork, chicken and many types of fruits and vegetables were all available in abundance.

We particularly enjoy watching and interacting with the vendors at markets such as this. A quick smile and perhaps a pantomime action or two is usually all the communication needed.

The Sukhothai Historic Park was designated a UNESCO site in 2003. It contains ruins from the 13th and 14th centuries and consists of 193 ruins over an area of 70 square kilometers (28 square miles).

There are Buddhas at every turn, and in every size from 1 foot to 50 feet tall. We went here early in the morning and again for sunset, looking for some great light.

Each collection of Buddhas is actually a separate Wat (or temple) from the 13th and 14th centuries.  Wat Is Chum was built in the late 14th century, and includes a massive Buddha statue with peculiarly elongated fingers.  This statue stands 15 meters high (50 feet) and 11 meters wide (35 feet).

Thailand 2 – Bangkok: Wat Pho and Floating Markets

After visiting the Grand Palace, we walked down the street to Wat Pho, one of the most famous temples in Bangkok.  “Wat” means temple, so all Thailand temples are “Wat <something>.”

The main attraction here is the Reclining Buddha.  This is a huge Buddha made of a gold-copper alloy, laying 46 meters (150 feet) long and 15 meters (50 feet) high. The reclining toes are each as tall as a person walking beside the feet. The building just barely fits the statue, making it feel like it was squeezed inside.

Walking along the street, it was obvious that the maintenance and renovation of the Grand Palace was an ongoing process, both inside and outside the walls (top row).  There were also several street fruit vendors that tempted us along the way,

Our second day in Bangkok started with us driving 1-1/2 hours outside the city to visit two of the markets: Damnoen Saduak and The Amphawa Floating Markets(known for its seafood). Unlike the floating markets we saw in Hong Kong and Vietnam, these were located on narrow canals.  In some places, the water was no wider than 5 of the boats plying the waters, yet there were dozens of boats all trying to compete for getting through first in whichever direction they were heading.  In other words, it was a repeat of the surface road traffic chaos, with the only difference was that everyone was on water. At the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market,  there were more tourists than locals. However it still is a scene worth experiencing.

The markets are primarily composed of food vendors, plus people passing to get lunch, either from another boat, or walking along the banks — which were themselves lined with an endless stream of restaurants and food vendors.

Food was King at the floating markets, and that was dominated by fruits and seafood.  Their were a dozen different varieties of crabs, all live and bound by rubber bands to protect the customer, as he chose his meal.  Prawns could be purchased already cooked (bottom-center) or still alive and totally fresh (center).

We visited a small Karen village, famous for the long neck women.  This is clearly a tourist draw, but it was still interesting to see in person.

The origin of the rings is open to debate. One museum we later visited stated that a woman was killed by a tiger in the 17th century, who mauled the woman’s neck. The tribal leader then dictated that all women wear the rings to protect their necks.  Others believe it was to reduce the desirability of the women being taken as slaves.  In all stories though, it is agreed that they are now worn as a sign of identity and beauty.

It is interesting to note that the rings do not really extend the length of the neck. Rather, the weight compresses the clavicle and ribs, causing them to collapse. The rings do result is very weak neck muscles though, and as a result, the women do not take them as long as they live.

Each woman was making some kind of craft, mostly weaving, which they were selling (we did buy a couple of items).  One woman had an old guitar hanging behind her.  Evelyn asked her to play, and the result was fascinating.  She brought it down, then pulled out some pliers to tune it… then a wooden mallet to bang it to tune some more… then another (bigger) pair of wooden pliers.  Finally, she played a tune for us and sang in a very soft voice.

Thailand 1 – Bangkok: The Grand Palace

We are starting our 2019 travels in Bangkok, Thailand. This is our third time in Thailand, though our last visit was some 15 years ago, and we remember so little of the details that everything seems refreshingly new to us.  That was a major reason we started this blog — we found ourselves usually forgetting details after a few years. Now, we have this permanent record to refer back to, and relive the excitement of each location.

We rode to the Grand Palace in a complimentary hotel tuk tuk this morning.  The Grand Palace is always crowded, even immediately upon opening, and it is always difficult to take a photograph without having a tourist in the image. The last few years, we’ve seen more large Chinese tour groups. With Thailand neighboring China, the percentage of tourists from China is even higher than elsewhere in our travels.

The Grand Palace has been the official residence of the King of Siam (and later Thailand) since 1782. The King and all government offices were relocated outside the Palace in 1932, after the abolition of absolute monarchy.

Gold statues are located throughout the Palace grounds, usually depicting mythical characters of Buddhist and Hindu religious significance.

Many of the guardians are jewel encrusted, or painted with ornate detailed designs.  Some of them are used as backdrops for an almost continuous flow of selfies (bottom-center).

Around one of the inner courtyards is what is claimed to be the longest “story mural” in the world.

Mural paintings depict the story of the Ramakien, the Thai version of the Indian Ramayana epic. This story is the battle between Tosakanth who is the King of demons and King Rama (human being). The story tell about Tosakanth kidnaps the Queen of King Rama whose name is Sida, and takes her to Longka city, where he hopes that she will fall in love with him but she doesn’t. In the battle that follows, Tosakanth asks his innumerable relatives and friends to join him, whereas King Rama has a monkey army and the great monkey warriors under his command. Finally, Tosakanth is defeated and King Rama takes Sida back to Ayodhaya, his capital city. The painting consists of 178 sections. [Quote from the official Grand Palace website]

Ships traveled to China in the 18th and 19th centuries, carrying Thai goods for sale.  Rather than return empty, the ships would carry Chinese statues to be used as ballast, stabilizing the ships for the return journey.  Many of those statues ended up in the Grand Palace, yielding a rather bizarre counterpoint to the predominant Thai architecture.

There is also a series of statues depicting Thai people in yoga postures.

As mentioned, people were everywhere around the Palace.  The monk (left) was one of the few we saw who works here. The rest (right column) were swarms of tourists.

Speaking of tourists, here are members of our tour group, showing the five people we are traveling with (Mary, Nikki, Burt, Evelyn, Roger, Paul and Steve).

Cuenca New Year’s Eve 2018

Saying goodbye to the old year with fire destroying the negative aspects of the prior year is a traditional way of celebrating New Year’s Eve in Ecuador. This New Year’s Eve appeared to be “the year of the jumpers.” There must have been a Zhumir (a locally made strong alcohol drink) or Pilsner contest, as jumpers were daring each other on how many times they could jump over the hot fire at the El Vado neighborhood plaza (above).

There were 23 entries for the annual Amistad Club de Cuenca contest this year. The El Vado neighborhood located on calle Juan Montalvo in el Centro won the 3rd place prize of $1,500 for their theme: “El genio en el país de los sapos” (“The genius in the country of toads“). It was a series of displays linked to the theme of Arabian nights, including President Lenin Moreno coming out of a genie’s lamp (upper right), tales of corruption revolving around Odebrecht (upper left), Alvarado and the magic carpet, and a doll showing ex-VP Vicuna with a sign “put money into the game.” (lower left — She is currently on trial for forcing an underling to pay Vicuna $2000/mo to keep her job.)

This year, the crowds were thinner than in prior years. We were able to comfortably walk down this street and had time to stop at each display to read (and translate) the messages. For the first time, the Ministry of Tourism printed a map showing where all the 23 displays were located, so we could plan our day’s walking around the city.

The El Vergel neighborhood won the $3,000 first prize, as they did the previous year, shown above.  Their theme was “La Ortiga Film Festival.” The centerpiece was President Lenin Moreno, megaphone in hand,  shown directing the film of politics and corruption (upper center). There were scenes making fun of the Tranvia, with Paul Granda and Mayor Marcelo Cabrero dressed in a chola Cuencana dress (upper left), Correa as the incredible hulk, Jorge Glas in a luxurious prison cell, big cows and cuy alluded to the Azuay Prefectura for multiple road works.

A number of artistic posters were created, which supported the movie theme at the El Vergel display.

This year the El Vergel arrangement was moved to a park several blocks behind the old El Vergel church, which provided more space.  In prior years, the crowds blocked traffic along Avenida 12th de Abril. The entire neighborhood participated, as people were painting and setting up their displays all afternoon.

The San Francisco neighborhood, located on Padre Aguirre, won the fifth place prize of $1,000 with their theme: “Mi projecto marcha bien“(“My project is going well“)  and consisted of a score of uniformed traffic cops marching with legs in different positions (upper left).

Other displays included the theme “El pacto de la regalada gana” (as in “The kids do whatever they want“), showing President Lenin Moreno as the Magi with his chair as Basaltar with his foot on a monigote of Correa (middle left). Another display located on Gran Colombia made fun of the Catholic priests (lower right and lower left), and many others around the city poked fun at politicians from Venezuela, Tranvia, Ecuadorean politicians, soccer players, beauty queens, traffic agents of EMOV.

Then came the clowns… first you see two police motorcycles racing with sirens and lights blazing, then stopping to block traffic.  Next you hear the sirens of the fire truck escorting a flatbed truck. Dozens of clowns pile out from the back of the truck, pose with the crowds, and walk around each display.

These clowns  are from Amistad Club de Cuenca (The friendship club), and along with delegates of the Municipality and the Union of Journalists of Azuay, are the official judges for this contest. There were six prizes awarded taking into account the message, creativity, artistic presentation, lighting, and community participation.

Every year, we see manigotes (paper mâché effigies) paraded on top of cars and displayed in front of businesses.

Many families celebrate together, some starting earlier in the day. Notes are pinned to some of the manigotes with names of people the owner had trouble with, negative thoughts, and bad happenings.  You can see notes saying (in Spanish) “smoking,” “job,” “unemployed,” or sometimes the name of an ex-spouse/girlfriend/boyfriend.  At midnight, they are all burned, so the bad of the past can be left behind, and they can start the new year fresh and optimistic.

Some of the manigotes (effigies) were stuffed with fire crackers, then doused with gasoline before they were lit. Kids enjoyed playing with their sparklers. This year, there appeared to be fewer fireworks, and fewer monigotes burning on the streets in front of people’s homes and businesses at midnight in el Centro than in prior years.

The main bonfires that were associated with the large displays, appeared higher and larger though, as the personal effigies were added to the main fires at selected intersections.

Then, as tradition dictates, groups got together and danced around the bonfires to welcome in the new year.

Each person is supposed to jump over the fire three times to bring good luck in the new year. This year, they were jumping over bigger fires than we’ve seen in prior years. In the past, the fires burned down pretty low before many people took the leap. This year, they egged each other on, and the jumping started while the fires were still rather large.  Several cherry bombs exploded while the jumpers leaped above the flames.

Some were jumping over the burning piles of manigotes (effigies) with Pilsner bottle in hand. Others earned style points for tucking and rolling, or for dance poises.  One expat, after many dares, tried to make the jump, but landed right in the middle of the fire. A half dozen locals immediately ran and pulled him out of the hot fire, patting down the burning embers on his clothing.

Above shows a sequence as one person ran towards the fire, then jumped through it.

This year, Burt focused on capturing the festivities with his drone. Above is a 45 second clip showing some of the fires. It opens with a random group of people dancing in a circle next to a fire.  The video then switches to a fire at another street corner (seen in video image above), where people keep piling on more material, until it becomes so hot that people can no longer get close. You see the drone backing up too, because the fire was so hot I was afraid that the drone might melt!

Shortly after these clips were shot, I moved quickly to another street corner with yet another fire burning.  I goofed this time though… Because the scene was unfolding quickly, I sent the drone up too soon, before it had grabbed a GPS lock.  I quickly discovered that the visual sensors of the drone do not work at night, as it quickly went wildly off course, crashing into a tool shed and landing upside down in a fenced off construction area at San Francisco Plaza…

I looked around for a policeman to retrieve it for me, but you know the saying “there is never a cop around when you want one.”  Yep, true.  I walked around the perimeter until I found a weak spot where I could unwind a few wire ties and bend back the fence to gain entrance.  The drone was sad, sitting upside down with its landing lights still flashing.  All four props were destroyed (fortunately I have plenty of spare props).  I haven’t flown it since that crash, but all possible indoor tests make it appear that the drone survived the experience…

Photo Galleries

At the top of this page is a menu that will take you to a variety of galleries showing our favorite images.

The most recent galleries include our recent trips to India, Dubai, Botswana, Namibia and New England. You can see all our favorite images from our 2018 travel here: