Sunday, November 30, 2014

Chiang Mai

Continuing our motorcycle trip northward, we eventually left the low flat lands - where riding the long flat roads tends to be hypnotic - to a change in scenery and temperature. Riding the twists and turns and ups and downs towards our day's destination of Chiang Mai was much more fun.

Chiang Mai is a sprawling city nestled in the foothills of northern Thailand. It has a comfortably cooler climate and a more laid back atmosphere than frenetic Bangkok so it's a popular getaway for Thais as well as a favourite for expats and tourists.

The city was a trading centre and in more recent history became an administrative centre. It has a special significance with Buddhists and today one can see many elaborate temples as a component in the quilting of the city.

Visitors to Chiang Mai can orientate themselves using the nicely preserved, age old, man-made moat that makes a square of about 1.5 km across. The city inside the moat is more relaxed than outside and a good place to just hang out at a sidewalk eatery or stroll as if time is irrelevant. There are vehicle and pedestrian accesses at various points around the moat where you can return to everyday life of the outside. At one time, a brick wall formed a second security barrier but only small parts of it remain.

One section of wall and moat

I wanted to try the so-called signature dish of Chiang Mai, a curry soup called Khao Soi, so we took a short stroll from our quirky guest house to John's Place that overlooked the moat. The restaurant produced a delicious vegetarian version that included coconut milk. Khao Soi is served in parts of northern Thailand but originally came from Burma (now Myanmar).

On Doi Suthep Mountain overlooking Chiang Mai is a shrine claimed to be the holiest in northern Thailand, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, parts of which date back to 1383. After driving up a steep 8 km winding road, our final assault was made by climbing the 309 steps to the top. The centre piece of the area was the huge golden Chedi (another word for Stupa) and all around it were elaborate shrines and temples filled with all forms of Buddha including some made of green glass.

Famous golden Chedi

Green-glass Buddha covered in gold

In one quarter, beautiful girls played a variety of instruments while dancing in their finery of traditional skirts with white blouses draped with blue shawls, and their long black hair held up by elaborate jewelled clasps. The site also gave us beautiful vistas of Chiang Mai and the valley below.

In our travels, we see a lot of construction of Wats and wondered where the money comes from to fund them. But that question was put to rest after observing the money collecting strategies in and around these temples. Here we saw an entry fee, various fees for renting appropriate dress covers (shawls to cover bare legs or shoulders), fees for devotees who needed flowers or incense to offer, as well as numerous donation boxes throughout the site stuffed with money.

Expensive Wat

The evening was spent sauntering through the night market, a few blocks out from the moat. It was a venue of shops and stalls selling all kinds of crafts and foods and was a nice way to spend the last few hours of our visit to Chiang Mai.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Sukhothai ruins

Our motorcycle journey continued north in Thailand to see more ruins at the historical site of the ancient city of Sukhothai. Here, unlike Ayutthaya, the ruins are in a moated serene park-like setting, unadulterated with modern development.

Another obvious distinction is that, no doubt, the subsoil bearing properties were vastly superior, evidenced by the straighter state of the remnants.

Straight and tall Prangs

Colourful monks and straight structures

But what was consistent with Ayutthaya was the predominantly Buddhist architecture of the ruins.

A Buddha peering down on me (circled in green)

Jordan (circled in green) dwarfed by statue

It would take most of the day to comfortably walk the site and see all the significant ruins and sights. However we opted for the rapid routing and paid a small fee and were able to take our motorcycle through the site. This left us the afternoon to make some more distance north.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

To the Ayutthaya ruins

After our trip to the Indian Himalayans, what next? Well this is the best season to see northern Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, so we put Sea Turtle to bed (at Chalong Bay of Phuket Island in Thailand) and jumped on our trusty Honda motorcycle and headed north on November 24th.

We broke up the 12-hour ride to Bangkok into 2 easy days, as usual (this is the 3rd time we've done this drive).

Bangkok covers a huge area sectioned by a river and many canals and bordered on the south by the China Sea. The geography is flat, so trying to keep one's bearing by mountains, like say when in Vancouver BC, is difficult. But we had a good street map and a brave spirit.

After a quick stop at the Nikon camera repair office, we continued north through the City, about a 2-hour navigation, and welcomed escaping the urban blight for cleaner air and quilted fields of green rice paddies.

Our day's destination was the city of Ayutthaya, 85 km north of Bangkok. Ayutthaya, at the confluence of 3 rivers, is actually a delta-like island. It was the naturally moated capital of Siam between 1350 and 1767 and considered by European traders as "Venice of the East" where rafts of international trading vessels converged. Its magnificence was lost during the war when the Burmese armies sacked and pillaged it in 1767.

Ayutthaya river scene (Wat structures in background)

Early evening sun glow on the ruins

Even though unregulated urban growth dominates the scene today, there remains significant enough ancient ruins that the site merited a UNESCO designation. We spent half a day wandering remnants of the past and what is left of Wats, Stupas, and Prangs - those Buddhist edifices of yore. Most of what remains show signs of poor subsoil support and over the years the structures settled into a drunken state.

Prangs to ponder

During the pillaging, most of the statues of Buddhists had their heads knocked off, broken, and/or even stolen. There were few complete statues. One intact sandstone Buddhist head was over the years entwined in the roots of a Bodhi tree. Too heavy to cart off??

Headless

Beheaded

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Reflections

For new journeys like this India trip, we purposely never make detailed plans, so we never know exactly what to expect. For us, it's the serendipitous experiences and sights that we cherish.

India is a multi-cultured country and most everyone has and speaks their own language or dialect but it was welcoming to find we never had a problem conversing as English is taught in schools and spoken by almost all.

It's a land of intensities and extremes that can be observed in its geography and in the nature of its inhabitants. The foods are spiced with rich and exciting flavours. They dress in dazzling and vivid colours and paint their homes and buildings from a riotous palette. It's as if their bold displays compensate for and escape from the hopeless poverty that afflicts the multitude. But penury hasn't affected their friendliness and generosity.

Hyper-chromatic you can feel

A painter's paroxysm you can see

Colourful curries you can taste

We are quasi vegetarian and many in India are too; the availability was abundant so we had a great variety to choose from.

This is the quintessential tea growing area so we sampled and really enjoyed all the many different flavours available including the locals' favourite, masala, which is a milky and sweet tea, usually with cardamon and ginger. To most, this does not sound very good, but it is actually quite tasty.

We were expecting cool to cold nights at the high altitudes but we weren't expecting the hotels to be so chilly. Electricity is expensive and non-reliable so they don't have heaters, but they do provide blankets aplenty. Many evenings we spent wearing our down-filled jackets until we crawled into bed. Most hotels did not have double beds or larger, only single. We of course pushed them together or cuddled in one of the single beds for the extra body heat!

Fortunately the weather was favourable and dealt us mostly sunny days. We carried rain gear but only needed it once for 2 kilometres.

This area is at risk for seismic activity but one wonders, looking at the building standards, what would happen if "the big one" hit.

Fodder for the Earthquake Gods

India has recently implemented a clean-up initiative and in Darjeeling we saw it in action. The state of Sikkim has its own set of standards and it was interesting to read signs stating that smoking is not allowed and considered and offence as well as spitting or the possession of a satellite phone! We only noticed one elderly woman puffing away on a cigarette indifferent to the law.

But the most impressive memories of this trip were the Himalayas. Considering that their peaks and ridges stretch across many hundreds of miles, to be presented with our grand earth's third highest in the locale that we chose to visit was certainly serendipitous.
You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above.

One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer; but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know. (by René Daumal)