Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Pai, Karen Hill Tribe Village (2 of 2)

July 9th - July 12th, 2012

After a day of being ill in bed and despite a still weakened stomach, Julian was ready to venture out to see Pai with us.  Paula took us to Bueng Pai Farm for a fabulous breakfast (porridge with mango, banana, fresh yogurt and coconut milk, Mmm!).  For the first time since arriving in Pai two days prior Julian was noticing the stunning surroundings.  Acres of rice paddies and farm land tended to by local people in straw hats, small mountains rising in the distance covered in thick foliage and small hamlets punctuated by the inevitable multi-roofed temple. 

On the motorbike we toured the surrounding areas.  The small waterfall would have been a lovely spot to spend the afternoon but we were not the only people who thought so.  Crowded with tourists we quickly got back on the bike and left for the Chinese village.   Passing through the red gates felt like crossing the boarder into rural China; possibly the most authentic feeling thus far.  We followed the steep road past humble restaurants and shops, all signs in Chinese.  Mist hung in the air as we neared the top to a viewpoint the poor long suffering Honda struggling up the last 500m of unsurfaced road.  I hesitated at 20 baht they requested on arrival not quite understanding why we should have to pay for the privilege of standing on top of a hill.  Passing over 40 baht anyway we were immediately offered a banana by the elderly Chinese gentleman and he began preparing us a pot of green tea.  We wandered the grassy hilltop to the far edge and looked down upon villages in the valley below.  Clouds clung to the surrounding hillsides and I felt overwhelmed with beautiful energy of this foreign landscape. 

Getting to know us and the type of experiences we seek from our travels Paula pulled a phone number out of her hat which would shape entirely our following day.  She arranged for us to venture out of Pai to cross the next mountain pass northwest and in the neighbouring valley pay a visit to a Karen Village, a hill tribe of Burmese minority people.  Back on the wonderful highway 1095 in the rain through stunning farmland and jungle, we got lost a couple times in the back lanes but finally found the muddy dirt road which would take us into the village.  Up and down the steep terrain I found myself clutching on for my life as Julian giggled his way through 9km of slippery mud and deep puddles, the 125cc Dream stoically pulling us forward despite almost grinding to a halt, the clutch smoking at some of the gradients.  

A final ascent lead us into the village and we found ourselves riding through bamboo houses and wooden shelters, pigs and goats tethered to the stilt supports, but not a soul in sight.  Passing a school at the top of the village the children playing in the yard greeted us with 'Hello's', big smiles and waves.  We were surprised to see a couple satellite dishes and solar panels on select rooftops in the village. Upon reaching the top of the village we ran out of road and after consulting our hand-drawn-not-to-scale map procured from a guest house (during our "scenic" route in) turned to return the way we had come. A local man on his bike approached us and indeed this was the man Paula had contacted that morning. He introduced himself and bade us follow him, whereupon we were soon invited into his home. 

Taking off our shoes we walked across the threshold into his lounge and into the backyard where he offered us his toilet of the squat variety which sat in the middle of his yard, not walled for privacy.  I was relieved that I had gone at the side of the road moments earlier and didn't ned to use his facilities.  Underneath his house two pigs enjoyed a muddy pen and to the left a tree with large oval fruits I did not recognize.  As soon as we asked about them he retrieved a long bamboo pole and began prodding the fruits until one of them fell to the ground.  "Jackfruit' he informed us. 


He lead us through his lounge and into his kitchen and began washing and cutting this large fruit.  The floor here was of bamboo, sliced and laid curved side up, the walls of woven bamboo and the roof joists of thick bamboo poles supported the traditional thatch we have seen right up the peninsula.  Pots and pans surrounded an open fire pit for cooking; running water came through a plastic pipe into a plastic bucket used as a sink.  He served us the sliced jackfruit at his low table in the lounge, we sat on the wooden floorboards asking him questions about his family and life in the village, often re-wording our sentences many times to reach across the language barrier, although his English was a whole lot more coherent than our Karen.  

Understanding that the Karen Tribe are famous for their exceptional weaving skills we inquired about it and asked to see it.  Expecting to be lead into a shop of shorts he left his home and soon returned followed by four smiling women, one of whom was his mother, all dressed in weaved sarongs and scarves.  The youngest of them, a girl of about 17, sat on the floor and set up her loom. One end was attached to a beam low on the wall, the other to a belt around her waist and she continued her weaving whilst the other three women began laying out their handcraft of exquisitely woven bags, scarves, blankets and traditional sarongs and vests they wear.  The English spoken among the women was little to none but we managed some small talk interweaving both English and Karen to form what we thought was comprehensive light conversation, sharing a joke with Julian as they implied that the rich white man should buy from each of them as he played along, insinuating he would fill a large cardboard box with everything they had and dress himself from head to foot, including accessories of purses and hats before we could all be satisfied. Our host cooked us up a lunch of noodles and egg on his wood burning stove as we purchased a few things happy to see our money go directly in into the hands of the people that made the goods rather than through a tourism agent or to shops with overheads.  We offered sincere thanks before finding the road back to Pai. 

Whilst some of the Karen Villages, in particular the long neck Karens, have tours arranged to bring people to visit, this village we were extremely fortunate to visit one that was not part of these group tours. It made for a very unique, personable experience.  An experience that once again we never would have come across if it wasn't for Couch Surfing, Paula truly went above and beyond with this suggestion for exceeding anything we could have hoped for in our search for authentic Thailand, off the tourist track experiences with local people. 

Pai, Thailand (1 of 2)

July 4th - July 11th, 2012

After leaving Ian and Suzies we spend a couple of days in Chiang Mai researching upcoming parts of our journey and soon after hired a motorbike and were en-route to Pai. 

The journey to Pai is just as exciting as the destination.  137 km long with 762 curves the road climbs steeply over two mountain passes and back down again to Pai in the valley below. Ill with both a head cold and minor food poisoning Julian was not physically doing well but insisted we make the trip regardless, partially to get out of Chiang Mai and into the countryside, partially to keep our date with our couch surfing host. The ride helped focus his mind but every time we stopped all he wanted to do was stay where he sat and sleep, feeling worse for wear as the day progressed.

The ride into the hills was like 'coming home' to me, the cooler air and mist hung amongst the trees as I felt that sense of familiarity I have been craving; a relief from the constant heat and sun of the tropics.  The monsoon is late here this year but a presence of it tantalizes in the air suggesting its forthcoming arrival to northern Thailand. I rested my head on Julians shoulders as we road the bike, the road twisting its way up the mountain side.  Clouds nestled amongst the trees in the valleys below and irregular showers moistened our skin and for the first time since coming being in SE Asia I almost felt 'cold'; pulling my sleeves up as far as they would go to fully embrace the sensation. 

Amongst the thick vegetation on the forest floor vines hung from the branches of trees restricting our view into the jungles beyond.  Golden Buddhas made appearances along the roadside as we passed small villages with roadside stalls selling fruit, coffee and petrol.  Feeling particularly enlightened and possible slightly delirious from his aliments Julian began to sing songs from old childhood television series such as the Wombles, the choruses from Mary Poppins and mixed in with classics from Iron Maiden and Metallica. As we approached a military checkpoint nearing the summit the bike suddenly swerved as Julian reached for his helmet in a panic, undoing its straps and nearly throwing it to the ground.  Taking his helmet from him I noticed a large black insect fly past me as he steadied the bike, pulled over and cradled his ear in agony. I instinctively sucked on his temple attempting to offer a sensation other than then stinging he was experiencing.

The road allowed him to focus on something other than the continuing sting as we made our descent into the valley below which was just as steep and curvaceous as the ascent.  Evening upon us Julian pulled over to put his jacket on, his health clearly deteriorating quickly.  His body possibly reacting to the sting further worsened his discomfort he wanted nothing more than to curl up and go to bed.

Pulling up at Paulas' stone house was a welcome moment.  She pulled back the gate and welcomed us with enthusiastic energy despite our late arrival.  Our host, originally from Washington DC, sold 95% of her possessions and moved to Pai to help open a Montessori School for Burmese refugees in 2011 and still serves the school as Board President.  Having just joined Couch Surfing it is an honour to be her first surfers and introduce her to this fabulous community of people.  I love CS virgins!  We sat down to a refreshing rice salad (with BROWN rice! Bring on the fibre) with some fresh bread and a cheddar cheese.  Decent cheddar cheese at that - hard to come by over here! 

We slept soundly that night to a cacophony of sound from the surrounding jungles of Pai; the loudest we have come across thus far. 

San Kaempeng, Chiang Mai, Thailand

July 1st - July 4th, 2012

We arrived in Chiang Mai with a set of directions to the home of our Couch Surfing host 15km outside the city centre.  After a hike in the afternoon heat from the bus station to the train station, we were to board a mini bus to San Kaempeng.  We stood on the side of the road as minibuses of all colours wizzed past us down the street.  Confused, it took us a few moments before hailing one whom shook their heads no upon learning of our destination.  Some ignored us completely, some requested 150, 200 even 300 baht for the trip.  Had our hosts not informed us the cost should be 15 baht each we may have fallen for these higher prices however turned every one of them down until we finally had a discussion with a tuk tuk driver who spoke a modicum of English and boarded a red sawng thaew which passed for the local bus; more so a pick up truck with two rows of wooden benches facing each other. 

Ian stood out immediately; the only white face waving and smiling as he road towards us on his motorbike.  The Englishman had to make two trips to get us back to his house with all our luggage on the motorbike, taking me first.  He weaved his way through rush hour traffic turning left down a narrow side street.  A gate stood open at the far end and it felt like the suburbs melted away behind us as we pulled into his one acre garden covered in fruit trees; mango, papaya, and banana.  A gorgeous teak wood home on stilts stood before me; an open air kitchen and living room beneath the main floor at ground level.  He called to his Thai wife Suzie to put the kettle on before leaving to collect Julian.  I smiled, certain that we would be served tea English style. 

Suzie came out to greet me with a warm, welcoming smile and sat me at their dining table as she went about making tea.  Julian and Ian arrived shortly thereafter and the entirely of the evening was spent in their lounge over interesting conversation and a never ending pot of English breakfast tea. Upstairs was a very open plan concept, their bedroom being the main space, a bathroom with bamboo walls directly off it.  Our bedroom was the only room with a door; a double bed with a large mosquito net allowing for windows to remain open throughout the night.  The air here cooler that further south and the city traffic well beyond the front gate it was the most comfortably sleep we have had in a while. 

The morning at Ians were leisurely and comfortable with pots of tea flowed freely.  Being here was almost like a break from our travels, easily loosing track of the outside word as we rested in this quiet haven.  We borrowed a couple of push bikes and road to the next town over, a handy-craft centre where all the local villages under the Kings scheme of "one village; one product" come together to sell a variety of wares, be it bamboo furniture, umbrellas, pottery or hand stitched clothes, bags and purses.

Later that evening Ian dropped us off in the 'trendy' part of Chiang Mai while he went to participate in a hypnosis group nearby.  At his suggestion, we visited The Salad Concept for dinner.  We found a table in the crowded restaurant and I was instantly happy with the 'make your own salad' idea (pumpkin dressing, amazing!).  Julian wasn't so sure.  Jazz music created an atmosphere akin to the funky Parisian underground and the menu (like the music) required you to "concentrate on the notes that aren't played" rather than the ones that are. To Julians mind the whole place lacked substance, particularly in the food department and it was not long before he decided he was not at all fond of the place, choosing to eat later rather than be half satisfied with a plate of rabbit food and a glass of wheatgrass.

After Ians group session, he drove us to another part of the city, to a salsa club where he was to spend the remainder of the evening.  We used the time to explore the area around the east gate of this formally walled city;  a busy section cluttered with western food chains and tourists. We were well on the backpacking trail here seeing more white faces than we had since leaving Canada. Wandering back alleys we found a quiet area of guesthouses before emerging again on the main street where working girls continually called out to Julian, calling to him as 'Mr Handsome' and 'Mr Sexy (quite right too - smug ed).  We retreated to a small restaurant on the fourth floor where we enjoyed a Thai omelette (a folded, stuffed omelette of tomatoes and ground pork) before meeting a our exhausted and sweaty, British, salsa dancing host. 

Ian and Suzie insisted we stay an extra night so they might show us the San Kampaeng hot springs.  Walking through the park alongside a heated stream we followed it to the source; a boiling pool of thermal water reaching 104 degrees.  Suzie purchased chicken and quail eggs then hung the woven palm leaf baskets into the pool and before long we were sat at a picnic bench enjoying these eggs cooked by the heat of the earth. 

The spas themselves were amongst the oddest I have yet to see at a public hot spring.  Men and women were separated into areas resembling gym changing rooms with individual doors lining the hall.  Private cubicles houses wooden and ceramic tubs with faucets much like those at home except the water came straight from a thermal source.  Alone in my private chamber I chose the 'warm' faucet at first, slightly weary of the heat which may come from the one labeled 'hot'.  I sat in my tub playing with the temperature, drinking heaps of bottled water until finally I the heat made my head spin.  I quite liked these private tubs.  Certainly more than the common concrete pools typically found at most public hot springs.  Nothing has yet come to beat the natural hot spring at White Swan National Park or the thermal cave systems in the Kootenays, British Columbia.

Once again Couch Surfing has absolutely given us another experience we never would have found otherwise.  To spend time with Ian and Suzie in their gorgeous teak wood home on stilts, relaxing our tired selves and learning about the traditions and expectations of multi national relationships in Thailand. To be invited in to see the world through their perspective was was an intriguing deviation for a few days. Another level to this endlessly fascinating country.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Sukkothai Historical Park, Thailand

June 28th- June 31st, 2012

 (Unfortunately Julian only kept 4 photos of the same thing from Sukkothai which is a real shame.  This place was incredible and I'm quite disappointed he discarded them all because he didn't feel they were of 'professional' quality).

Note dropped us off at the station the following morning, we said our farewells and after breakfast boarded a long nosed tuk tuk. Unlike their Bangkok counterparts, the drivers and passengers are separated in the long nose and as a result they feel very different. From the exhaust note it sounds like they might be running small car engines and indeed the whole thing feels like a Reliant Robin more than anything else; not nearly as much fun as the originals but serviceable to a purpose and more practical from the owners point of view I'll grant.

The four hour bus ride north to Sukhothai was uneventful and we arrived, found our lodgings and ate, this scenario fast becoming routine as we continue our travels before settling in for the evening to catch up on some writing and plan something of an itinerary in Thailands first Capital. The following day I was suffering with a little heat stroke so we remained inside writing, apart from a brief foray for food.

The following day we took a "sawng thaew", a three ton pickup truck fitted with benches, to Sukhothai Historical Park which preserves what remains of the first capital of Siam; another UNESCO site and the reason for our stop here.

The park itself covers more than 70 acres of crumbling monasteries, temples, stupas, palaces, and stunning Buddha statues as well as portions of the original city fortifications and is divided into sections, each charging an admission fee, or if time permits, one may purchase a ticket for all sites at a reduced rate.  For once this actually worked in our favour. Much to the surprise of renters we turned down the offer of bicycles and instead elected to walk. Julian had studied the guides and maps the previous day and had a clear idea about what he wanted to see; sure enough the best of Sukhothai (with a couple of notable exceptions) were within a happy days stroll around the park.  Ayutthaya ruins share space with the current town whereas the modern town of Sukhothai lies a few kilometres to the east of the old city. Now the ruins stand amongst nothing but trees and lakes making the whole experience very relaxed with virtually no traffic and since we are in the "off" season, relatively few people

The first and largest of all the temples in the city is Wat Mahathat (not to be confused with the Wat Phra Mahathat in Ayuthaya). A giant Buddha sits tall upon a platform, itself some 4 metres off the ground and the lotus shaped stupa dominates ones vision to the left from the approach road. To the right, the north side, sits Wat Sa Si on it's own island.  To the south beyond the 9m standing Buddha and the many buildings of Wat Mahathat lies Wat Si Sawai with it's picturesque moat and three Khmer style prangs intricately decorated with stucco images of Hindu mythology.  Their markedly differing architecture held our interest, allowing us not to get swamped and "all templed out" as we had found travellers to be when we met them heading south in Malaysia and Bangkok. The significant time frame and importance of the three cities gives each its own unique character and Julian's mind finally hit overload at the end of the day as his daily Facebook update read:

"Six weeks into this trip and it really came home to me today just what an incredible amount of amazing things we are going to see over the next 18 months"

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Ayutthaya, Thailand

June 26th - June 28th, 2012

Alighting from the train after a three hour journey north out of Bangkok the tuk tuk drivers were, as usual, surrounding us.  Shaking our heads we walked away with them in pursuit, trying to convince us it was too far to walk to the accommodation.  A couple of German fellows asked about cheap accommodation options to which they responded the cheapest being 800 baht.  Having been in Thailand long enough we all knew he was pulling our legs and despite his persistence we continued to discuss our options between the four of us, the travellers bond shrouding us from the unwelcome attention.  Julian and I headed towards the tourist information down the street, picked up a map to locate the mini bus station where our Couch Surfing host, Note would be picking us up.  Back on the street, the same driver had followed us down the street in his tuk tuk, calling to us incessantly but now armed with information we walked the necessary 400m to the boat quay where we once more met with our two German friends and took a quick ferry across the river to the island side.  

A few phone calls later Note finally found us and picked us up with another Dutch couch surfer who was teaching english in the local area.  He dropped us off at his house, briefed us quickly, left us with the keys to his house and motorbike and promptly left for Bangkok to watch a Thai musical.  Humbled by his generosity and immediate trust in us we had a quick look around his house; one room set up as a recording studio with grafitied walls, numerous guitars, electronic drum kit and a mixing desk amongst recording equipment and a computer.  A comfortable lounge was decorated with a set of reproduced samurai armour and leather seating which gave away to a hallway leading to a fully equipped kitchen, up the stairs to our air conditioned bedroom.  After a short rest we reved up the motorbike as the sun set for a evening ride before dinner. 

The attendant at the tourist office in Bangkok recommend we stop in Ayutthaya; the former capital which was destroyed by the Burmese Army in 1767, resulting in the collapse of the kingdom.  Its ruined Wats and the Royal Palace a site of mass murder, rape and enslavement of the Siamese people now recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site 

As we trundled around the island on our newly acquired wheels, down streets mercifully quieter than Bangkok we passed numerous prangs of red brick, many of which lay in ruins, before turning down a side street between two ruined temple sties.   As I stood between these Wats I could feel their stories coursing through my veins, invoking emotion much deeper than the golden temples I have previous explored throughout the peninsula.  Wat Phra Sri Sanphet was the most important temple of Ayutthaya and situated within the Royal Grounds.  The Wat was silhouetted against the darkening sky, a couple sat upon the brick walls which were closed for the evening.  Julian vowed to return to this site for sunrise and the next morning wandered the deserted site in the silence of mornings first light. 

Note joined us for a few hours that morning and after a breakfast of chicken and rice brought us to visit the Ayuthaya Elephant Kraal.   A new mother, chained at the ankle guarded a two day old baby.   It appeared the two had been granted special privileges of a open space outside the main confines, munching happily on fresh hay.  Surrounding the parking lot three enclosures were segregated from each other; males together on the far side, females opposite, and mothers with young ones together in another.   Upon learning that we could approach the elephants we purchased a basket of large cucumbers  to offer them.  The two youngest approached us eagerly reaching into our outstretched hands with their trunks.  I was then that we noticed not only were all these elephants confined within the enclosure, they were also all bound by metal chains attached at the ankle each allowed about 15ft of leeway.  A  young boy no older than 15 stood by an elephant with a sharp steel hook, scraping it down her trunk for no apparent reason and I watched her back away from him as far as her short leash would allow.  Upon seeing our offerings of food they stretched their chains to their furthest length, their trunks reaching out towards us with what seemed to me like a sense of urgency. 

Visiting the males, I noticed first they all constantly shook their heads from side to side, swaying the hours away. One in particular had fabulously long, twisted tusks which crossed over each other, his trunk reaching out between them.  This along with his wrinkled skin suggested his mature age, possible the eldest of the group.  He reached out to me with his trunk, our eyes meeting and I sensed a particularly disturbing vibe.  One of the workers called out to me, calling me a "stupid woman" urging me to back well away from him.  These elephants remain confined here for the most part, rotating in shifts into town for eager tourists hire them for a sightseeing tour of the city. Later we saw people perched upon their backs on high seats, the mahout sat upon the backs of their necks in traditional dress willing them to his direction with word, heel and the occasional prod.  They seem happy enough to be wandering the streets, but to know that they spend the majority of their lives under ball and chain troubled me further.  

This is not the first time we have been made to feel upset by animal treatment in this part of the world and I began to think about our volunteer position at the Tiger Temple.  The month of September we had booked in with a Buddhist Temple working hands on with tigers and participating in the personal encounters between tourists with these incredible creatures.  A seemingly fabulous image gave way to thoughts of conditions possibly similar to here and it wasn't long before Julian and I discussed the situation whereupon we agreed we did not approve of such treatment of wild animals, especially predatory animals, and both of us were feeling uncomfortable about our commitment and the support for such ventures this inferred. We have now withdrawn our volunteer position. 

Note brought us to one of his favourite temples; a small, modest building home to a pure white Buddha; much more humbling than his golden counterparts.  Offering to show us the traditional way to pray, we got down on our knees and repeated after him in Thai, mimicking his movements as we stared into the smiling eyes of this white Buddha.  

Having seen the ancient sites many times before, Note escorted us to UNESCO World Heritage Site Ayutthaya Historical Park and left us to explore on our own for the rest of the day.  We began with Wat Mahathat, the largest of the temple sites and generally considered to be the first of the Khmer style prang to be built in the former capital although the attraction for most tourists (ourselves included) is the Buddha head engulfed by tentacle like tree roots. Opting for the audio guide tour of the site we dutifully followed the map around in scorching heat. Where we couldn't hide in the shadows of trees or walls the two of us hid beneath my pashmina and walked in sync amongst the ruins imagining the original splendour as depicted through our headphones, the audio guide as so often is the case, providing another layer to our experience. 

Taking advantage of the loaned wheels, we drove to the outskirts of the city towards a temple which caught my attention as the train pulled towards the station. Prangs wrapped in cloth stood gloriously before us and many images of the Buddha similarly so. The clear saffron stood out against the ancient mottled stonework, sky and vegetation alike.

The gift of transport that Note had granted us really came into its own as we crossed back the entire width of the city to Wat Chai Wattanaram. This particular structure was built in the 17th century and extensively restored in the 1980s and is (according to Lonely Planet) a popular spot for sunset watching which of course piqued Julians interest. We arrived far too early for the evening light but were impressed beyond words with the building, the central stupa reaching high into the air surrounded by four prangs at the compass points and even smaller versions between. The site was closed for renovation work, but for a change, we were happy enough to take in the overview, the perspective from the riverbank as impressive as anything we had come across so far. We had time before the last of the daylight to run down to the nearest market before returning with food to wait for the sun. The tourist trips up the river came upon the Wat at various times during the next hour and a half there and for a time we thought we might be swamped by those and fighting for the most photogenic angles come sunset, but each and every one, from the large party boats pumping base beats, to the smaller craft with maybe half a dozen passengers had disappeared by the magic hour and just the two of us remained. The cloud had been hanging over us for most of the afternoon but just as the sun began setting it cleared from the western horizon and gave us the most glorious display.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Bustling Bangkok (3 of 3)

June 18th - June 26th, 2012

The following day was more city touring around Bangkok. We took a river taxi to the fabulous 18th century Temple of Dawn, one of the city's best known landmarks. Far different from the golden temples we have been visiting I was in awe over the beauty of this structure.   The main tower of the stone Wat is encrusted with porcelain surrounded by four similar, smaller prangs decorated with sea shells and bits of porcelain. 

We climbed the narrow, steep staircase to the upper terraces of the main tower offering a great overview of old Bangkok. Apartment and office buildings rose amongst street stalls; over housing complexes towered immaculate gold, green and red roofed temples and amidst them all; the Grand Palace.

We climbed the narrow, steep staircase to the upper terraces of the main tower offering a great overview of old Bangkok. Apartment and office buildings rose amongst street stalls; over housing complexes towered immaculate gold, green and red roofed temples and amidst them all; the Grand Palace

Having satisfied our stomachs whilst wandering through the street markets in the late afternoon, we parted company for the evening. Julian to the boxing on the edge of the old city whilst I took the river taxi back to the south side in search of a massage before retiring to Songwoots late in the evening.

The following day we walked up to the Royal Palace. Made up of numerous buildings, halls and pavilions set around open lawns, gardens and courtyards.  
We walked through the Outer Court towards the entrance admiring the grounds.  On arrival at the gate were flabbergasted by the ridiculous entry free of 800 Baht to be paid by foreign tourists (whereas the local Thais could enter for 40 Baht.)  Despite being interested we turned and walked straight out: Our budget is about 1000 baht per day between us!

Whist on the plane from Edmonton to Yellowknife we watched a documentary on the Seven Wonders of the Buddhist World.  Since then images of Wat Pho, also known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha or more formally known as Wat Phra Chettuphon Wimon Mangkhlaram Ratchaworamahawihan (and remembering Thai is a tonal language so really we have no idea what the temple is formally known as LOL - ed) have danced in my mind and I eagerly anticipated seeing it with my own eyes.  We came across another street market, this one, the antiquities variety;  religious stone carvings lay on tables next to patches of tiger skins and sets of dentures. We bought a small amulet depicting Buddha for 10 baht, a momento of our time here and Julian had a black necklace weaved personally for him; his wolf claw from the arctic attached to a isolated loop. 
Adjacent to the Grand Palace, Wat Pho is one of the largest and oldest temples in Bangkok and is home to over one thousand Buddha images including one of the worlds largest. We entered through the gates into the walled compound which used to be a centre of education for traditional Thai medicine and massage.  
Inside the main temple the golden reclining Buddha lay 15 meters high and 43 meters long with his right arm supporting his head on two box-pillows of blue, richly encrusted with glass mosaics.  The feet alone are a sight in themselves, the soles inlaid with mother-of-pearl of 108 symbols by which Buddha can be identified such as flowers, dancers, white elephants, tigers and alter accessories.  Down the entire length of the hallway people drop coins into 108 bronze bowls representing these characters believed to bring good fortune. 

We walked through the grounds of the temple; a small raised garden with bodhi tree,  91 chedis (stupas or mounds), four viharas (halls) and a bot (central shrine). 71 chedis of smaller size contains the ashes of the royal family.  The peaceful grounds were stunning and I continue to feel so thankful that I am able to experience these places.  

Leaving Wat Pho en route to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha we were drawn off course by hundreds of kites flying high in the sky.  We walked to the royal grounds and found we had come across the Traditional Arts and Sports Festival.  Somewhere around 2500 young people dressed in their school uniforms flew paper kits decorated with images of dragons or snakes.  A group of gorgeous women in elaborate traditional Thai dress were handing out kits to the youngsters.  It appears this event was exclusively for school children and I held back my eagerness to join in but it was not long before we were approached by a older Thai women (apparently a teacher) who encouraged us to claim our own kites. 

Overjoyed by the opportunity we filled out a form and received our kits.  Joining thousands of youngsters we attempted to get out kites into the air, which in all honestly wasn't as easy as they made it look!  The older lady had been watching and motioned to me from afar how to keep them airborne which made a dramatic difference and allowed me to keep the kite in flight. Julian, on the other hand proceeded to crash his into the ground repeatedly, accompanying his disastrous flying skills with giggles every time his brightly coloured wing spiralled earthward, until his kite would fly no more.

A commotion in front of the stage drew our attention; a performance of dance and martial art displays to live music of drums and strings went on for nearly an hour and it wasn't long before Julian had put away his damaged kite and tactically wormed his way to the front of the crowd for some unimpeded photography.  

The festival came to a close and as we made to leave, another commotion drew a crowd of people to a street corner at the edge of the park.  Two groups of art students from the local university faced each other across the road from opposite sidewalks.  The energy erupted from one group as they challenge the opposing team with intimidating song and dance.  On the other side of the street the students with the black and white faces scowled in response, arms crossed and glaring.  Enthusiastically they continued their performance to the beat of bongo drums before taking off to the other side of the block and continuing their antics on another corner.  Water bottles were emptied it the air over the bongo drums as the percussionists passionately persisted their beat, the underlying rhythm to some very raucous chanting. How much more wonderful would it have been to actually know what was being said? 

All the excitement caused us to miss the Temple of the Emerald Buddha but we were alive with the energy and passion of Bangkok, the kite flying and beating drums a welcome change to the endless golden temples. 

We figured we ought to check out Bangkoks' red light district but were appalled at the western prices, cheap knock-off merchandise and awkward 'family friendly' environment of this infamous part of the city.  I couldn't help but compare it to the vibe of Amsterdam (which is by no means family friendly) and I found myself disappointed with the atmosphere. We made to leave three blocks after arriving and headed home.  Realizing we had to eat first we chose the cheapest option in the area; the daily sandwich special at Subway. Our funds so tight that day we made it home via public transport with barely 5 baht to spare.