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Thailand and Laos (and Myanmar if I can manage it)

Hello, Sawatdee kaa and Sabai dee,

My next trip will be Thailand and Laos, and this is all about the before, the trip and the after - similar to my Malaysia/Cambodia blog. I am putting together from start to finish - tickets, do's and don'ts, tours, where to stay, places to see, things to do, as well as useful extras like transport, good places to eat, what to wear, climate, tourist traps, tricks and tips and whatever else I can think of that will be useful.

If you have any tips or advice, please, feel free to leave a comment and add your bit - whatever you think may be helpful or interesting.

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Sunday, September 25, 2011

65. Chiang Mai Walking Tour

Pang and I started out - he was the leader and I the follower. To this day, I have no idea what streets we walked or which direction we took. I had said I like history and was interested in temples. That seemed to set the tone for the walk - he took me to different temples.

Anusawari Sam Kasat
One of the places we stopped was the Anusawari Sam Kasat - the Three Kings Monument. The monument, Pang told me is made of bronze and commemorates the alliance forged between the three northern Thai-Lao kings ~ Phaya Ngam Meuang of Phayao, Phaya Mengrai of Chiang Mai and Phaya Khun Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai and the founding of Chiang Mai. The statues seem to have become a sort of shrine for the locals who leave offerings of flowers, candles and incense at the feet on a regular basis in return for good luck/blessings from the powerful spirits of the three kings.
Unfortunately the photos I took weren't all that crash hot due to the light so they're not included here. But I have the memories here (taps head).

Ornamental Street Signs
Above: Street sign
The street signs in Chiang Mai are a real work of art and I couldn't help but think, "I wish we had signs like these at home". Given that Chiang Mai is noted for its many temples (over 300 of them), the obvious adornment for their street signs are temples and judging by this one, I'd say they try to fit as many as possible on top.

Thai Buddhist Temples
A Thai Buddhist temple is a group of religious buildings and other features (such as trees and lakes), surrounded by a wall, and with at least one gate. The main buildings are the Ubosot or Bot, (Ordination Hall), the Chedi or Stupa (Reliquary Tower) and the Viharn (teaching Hall). Of equal importance may be a Bhodi Tree or a Buddha Footprint.

Wat Duang Di (1829)
Wat Duang Di is in Phrapokklao Road and its name means "The Good Luck Monastery". It is a small temple almost hidden away in an area shaded by old longan trees. The viharn is remarkable for its highly decorated facade and the finely carved design over the main entrance and which shows certain central Thai influences such as the use of load-bearing walls.

Above: Facade of the viharn

Above: The carved 'sum' design over the entrance ~ comprises naga and plant motifs

Above: Main shrine

Above: The Ubosot
A phra ubosot (พระอุโบสถ) is the holiest prayer room and is also called the "ordination hall" as it is where ordinations take place.

Above: Detail of the richly carved front of the ubosot

Above: Marble tablet
The marble stone reads "The Chiang Mai chronicle reports that in 1761 a monk of Wat Duang Di became ruler of Chiang Mai at a time when Chiang Mai was independent for a short period before the Burmese returned to again govern the country (1763 - 1774).
In 1819 King Thammalangka, the second ruling prince of Chiang Mai, renovated the monastery and held a dedication celebration. Wat Duang Di has a wiham and monastic library with beautiful wood carvings."

Above: Guardian lion

Wat Umong Maha Therachan (1367)
Wat Umong Maha Therachan was built in 1367 during the reign of King Ku Na. The highly revered monk Thera Chan was the first abbot and it is said the King often visited the temple to seek his advice. The Wihan and the smaller bot are fine examples of the Lanna style.

Above: Wat Umongmaha Therachan
On Ratchpakinai Road, the charming temple is set amid a rustic tranquility full of pastoral charm. The grounds have a peaceful and relaxing feel and the variety of trees create a pleasant quietness.

Above: Close-up of the entrance
The rows of flags are comprised of the Thai flag (red, white and blue) and the yellow Thai Buddhist flag (The Dharmacakra flag), symbol of Buddhism in Thailand.

Above: Paying respect

Above: Buddha

I have had a great deal of trouble trying to find any history of this temple. If any of you reading this can add to this, please feel free to leave a comment and add to this. Thanks.

It's Friday
Above: Schoolgirls - Friday afternoon
These lovely girls caught my eye with their innocence and beauty. Pang tells me that on Fridays, school children wear pink to honour the King. In the past, most Thais would wear yellow in honour of HM, but after the PAD hijacked the colour yellow and politicised it, that seems to have changed.

What Wat?
Above: Golden Wat
Although the photo isn't the best, I really liked this lovely wat so have included it here. Alas, I've not been able to find out the name, but did wonder if it was Wat Phra Singh?

Wat Phra Sing ~ Monastery of the Lion Buddha (1345)
Wat Phra Sing was built in the 14th century by King Pha Yu of the Mengrai dynasty to enshrine the remains of his faher, King Kham Fu. Today, Wat Phra Sing houses Phra Chao Thong Tip, the most venerated Buddha statue in northern Thailand. It was cast in 1477 and is made of an alloy of gold and copper. The statue was a gift to Chao Kawila by several monks from Sipsongpanna (the southernmost area of today's Yunnan province, China).

King Ananda Mahidol (Rama VIII), the older brother of the present King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX), bestowed it the status of Royal temple of the first grade in 1935.

Above: Facade of Viharn Luang

Above: Inside the Ubosot of Wat Phra Singh
Perpendicular to Viharn Lai Kham is the ubosot, built in 1806. The opulent decoration on its gables include abstract mandala designs. Inside is an ornate ku (Buddha throne)

Above: Viharn Lai Kham - Hand-painted murals
The realistically painted murals on the walls document the daily life of the people of Lan Na in the 19th century. The viharn is also notable for its colorful mural paintings illustrating Jakata tales of the Buddha. The murals were painted during the 1820s by a Chinese artist.

Above: The much-revered Lion Buddha at Wat Phra Singh
During Songkran each year, the statue is taken from Wihan Lai Kham and carried through the streets of Chiang Mai in a religious procession during which the spectators honour the statue by sprinkling water over it. It is said the head is a copy as the original was said to be stolen in 1922. The beautiful Viharn Lai Kham (Gilded Hall), was built around 1345 and renovated in the early 19th century. It is considered a fine example of Lanna monastic architecture.

Wat Phan Tao (1846)
Wat Phan Tao means "The Monastery of a Thousand Kilns". The site was used for the casting of Buddha images intended for Wat Chedi Luang, which is adjacent to the monastery. The building wasn't originally constructed as a monastery, but as a royal palace building (ho kham) for the ruler of Chiang Mai, Chao Mahawong, who used the structure from 1846 to 1854. Originally it stood on stilts, but they were removed when the building was refurbished as a monastery in 1876.

Above: Peacock and dog motif over the main entrance
The dog is the zodiac symbol of Chao Mahawong's birth year. The dog image is also present in the pediment of the left window on the front facade, though it's absent on the right side.

Above: Peacock
A closer view of the peacock and curled dog design in the pediment. The dog (crouching below the peacock) represents the founder, Chao Mahawong, whose zodiac birth sign was the dog.

Above: Detail of the 'eyebrow' pelmet below the peacock and dog motif, showing lotus flowers in various stages of bloom

Time to go 'home'
By the time we had looked at these lovely temples, walked around in circles (remember I had no idea where I was, being a first timer and all) the light had been fading fast. Indeed, many of the photos I took don't do the temples justice - in daylight they would have come out so much better. We strolled back, went to the cafe and settled down for a drink and a chinwag.
So ended my first day in Chiang Mai.

64. Chiang Mai Accommodation

Arrived at Smilehouse Guesthouse, was shown a very small room which was 500 baht - no room, dreary, damp and decidely yukky. And it smelt. I had booked a double room at 700 baht with television and air-con. The lady showed me another room, in the "new" building but, she told me, the television is not working. I didn't like the padlock which was to be placed on the outside of the door and locked. Security issues? Very likely in my opinion.
The lass said to complain to the office, she said all online bookings go to Smilehouse Boutique Hotel, then a reservation is sent to the guesthouse. Because I was one person, I was given a room for 1 pax. She also said many things broken here, please complain to office, She offered me a refund (I'd had to hand over 2,800 baht there and then). I said I'd look for another place.
Now that I think of it, this was the first place that wanted the cash upfront.
I hadn't been able to find somewhere else - remember, this was my first time in Thailand and I had no idea really where I was, it was very easy to get lost.

The Be Bee Cafe
Leaving the dismal Smilehouse (so inaptly named, don't you think?), I made a beeline for Tee's cafe and had an excellent meal. (See photo below)

Above: Most delicious lunch

Tee introduced me to her brother, Pang, who informed me he often worked as a guide. He offered to show me Chiang Mai, take me where I would like to go and said his sister rang him and said I was by myself and might be lonely and maybe would like someone to show me around. As this was my first time here I decided to take him up on his offer and thought it would be a good idea to go on a "walking tour" - that's the best way to find your bearings in a strange place.

We agreed that he would meet me at the Smilehouse GH in around 30 minutes.

A Shower And A Blackout
Walking back to Smilehouse, I turned on the air-con (the room was pretty hot) then hopped under the shower. So, there was me - starkers with a head full of shampoo, when all of a sudden - Bang! - the power went out. I couldn't see in the dimness, the water went cold and I had to quickly try and wash out the shampoo suds under cold water. I wasn't very pleased I can tell you.

Dressed, I made my way to reception. There was a beefy looking chap there (he told me the lady had finished and gone home) who was most unhelpful. I insisted he come with me to take a look at the now non-existent electricity. Grumbling, he did so. Outside my room on the opposite wall, he pulled a switch or something and the power came back on.

You can't have a shower and have the air-con on at the same time
He told me it was my fault the power went off because I was using "too much electricity" to which I responded I only had one light and the air-con on while I took a shower. He said you can't use the shower and have the air conditioning on at the same time because it uses too much electricity and the power goes off.

I resolved to ask Pang if he knew of another place to stay that was within my budget.

Pang Saves The Day
In the midst of the electricity fiasco, along comes Pang who asked what was wrong. When I explained, he said to come with him and took me to the Anodard Hotel saying that he knew this place (the hotel) and it was better than where I was. After speaking with the receptionist who said they had two spare rooms, I asked to see both before committing and chose the larger of the two. After giving them the details, we went back to Smilehouse, collected my luggage and asked for a refund.

NO Refund
The beefy one was most unhelpful and rather un-friendly. Didn't want to give anything back. Pang spoke with him in Thai. They had words. He eventually said he'd give back some but would keep 300 baht - for the use of the shower.
Not good PR. I definitely would not recommend this place to anyone.
I was not a happy little Vegemite!

The Anodard Hotel
Above: Anodard Hotel
My room was just up there - that square bit that juts out at the front was almost in front of my window - about the sixth from the right.

Above: Reception Staff
The girls at reception were lovely and always had a smile for me. When I was checking in, a chap came over and took my suitcase - I'd never stayed anywhere before where someone takes your luggage to the lift and wheels it into your room - and I asked Pang was I supposed to give him money for doing that. He replied, "Up to you. But if you give him something, he will do anything for you."

Not having ever stayed at a place where they wheel your stuff to the lift and take it to your room and never having been in this situation before, I thought it probably better to give him something to show gratitude and gave the chap 100 baht. I was surprised at the look on his face - it was wreathed in a big smile which reached his eyes and he seemed very happy. I was glad I gave him the money, just to see the happiness on his face. And Pang was right, this dear man nearly fell over his feet wanting to do things for me. We had lots of conversations which I greatly enjoyed and I think he did too.

Above: My room
The room was clean - I was given a choice of two, this being the better. The window faced the street and there were fly screens. It was basic but very dated. From the front, the hotel looked wonderful but the rooms alas just aren't in the same league. The public area, that is reception and lobby are far more appealing. Breakfast isn't included and they don't do meals although there is a smallish urn where for the cost of around 30 or 40 baht you can get a cup of coffee or tea. But you are not allowed to do it yourself - one of the chaps on duty does it for you. It isn't the sort of place where you meet and mix with fellow travellers.
Still, in spite of this, the staff were lovely and friendly. Should I find myself in Chiang Mai again, I think I would probably look for accommodation that has a bit of life - it was very quiet here and I found myself spending more time at the Be Bee Cafe for company than I did at the hotel.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

63. Chiang Mai Station

A Tiresome Little Person ~ Beware The "Friendly" Taxi Driver
Chiang Mai station is very pretty and I took lots of photos. I went outside for a smoke - this annoying little git asked did I want a taxi? "No", says I - I'd bought a cappuccino (or what passes for cappuccino in Thailand) and said I wanted to take photos, book a ticket etc.

Next time I'll know to keep my big, fat mouth shut and say, "No thank you" and turn away. He said he'd wait for me. I was wishing he'd go away, I couldn't relax and just take my time soaking up the atmosphere - I'd love to have gone across to the little shop just outside and sat there a while.
I guess I must have had "I'm a first timer here and a bit of a dill - take my money!" stamped on my forehead!

Anyway ... back to my impression of Chiang Mai station -

Elephants and Flowers
As I said, the station was very pretty and as we exited from the platform, there's a huge elephant with white tusks set amid a display of flowers, shrubbery and palms. As you walk a little further on, there are two elephants with a gong in the centre. I was quite taken with a large, wide sign advertising the Chiang Mai Nightsafari. Sadly, I didn't get to see it. But - there's always next time.

Above: Chiang Mai railway platform

The Concourse
There were many people milling around, a vibrant, cornucopia of humanity. There are fruits for sale, cafe foods, souvenirs, even sunglasses for sale. It's a well-appointed station with a tourist information counter, dining facilities, a ticket & information booking office and of course, a large photograph on the King. Lovely decoration hung from the ceiling. As you can see in the photo lower right-hand side, the time is almost 12 noon.

Above: Tickets and Information
I booked my ticket Nong Khai to Bangkok - a second class sleeper, lower berth with air-con. Cost was 758 baht - $24.61. I would advise those wishing to take the train to opt for the lower berth, not only do you not have to climb up and down, (very hard on arthritic knees!), but when you wake in the morning, you can see the pretty mountain scenery as the train enters the highlands and traverses Doi Khun Tan National Park and mountains between Lampang and Lamphun Provinces. A bit of trivia - the old name for Lampang was Khelang Nakhon.

The Gardens
Above: Gardens
This area was visually pleasing and lent an air of charm. There were little ponds water lilies, beautiful flowering potted plants, Victorian-style lamplights, ferns, waterfalls and water features, garden statues in the shape of animals which all added up to a "cottage" effect.

Above: Exterior
The row of shops in the lower left photo consists of a coffee shop, a blind massage place, gifts & souvenir and a food/restaurant shop - to the right of this is an outdoor beer type garden.

Tiresome Little Person ~ Part 2
Remember that annoying little person who I couldn't shake off? You know, the taxi driver person? Well I felt extremely uncomfortable with him hanging around me like a spider waiting to catch a fly, and although one or two other chaps approached, I didn't really get the chance to speak with them, this self-appointed one shooed them off! Anyway, I indicated I was ready to go, he took my suitcase, walked to his vehicle which turned out to be a decrepit looking thing which had no suspension and was none too clean looking. I remembered to ask him how much. He wanted (can't remember just at the mo) but what I thought an outrageous price. He said it's a long way - at least 20 minutes. He lied - it was less than 10!

He dumped a big, heavy folder in my lap and said he could take me around CM and wherever I wanted to go. I leafed though it out of courtesy and there were scores of letters extolling the goodness and wonder of him. Some even dated back to 2003!

I just said I had friends in Chiang Mai and I'd see them first - he kept pressuring me till I finally told him point blank my friends had organised to take me around and they were going with me. This shut him up. He didn't bother to remove the folder either. I put it on the dashboard.
Note: There wasn't anybody who had organised trips - it was a white lie but had the desired effect.
All in all, it was a good learning experience - we live and learn. Next time, I won't be so green!

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