14/07/2017Comments are off for this post.

Buddha, Ganesha and me hammering silver, or Chiang Mai — CHIC episode 4

I love how accidental relationships, acquaintances change during travel, as it happened with G. who luckily left Bangkok for Chiang Mai later than us and brought the content of T’s locker after us careless girls. Or J., who is nearing the end of a world tour, and knew much more than us as a practicing Buddhist about the symbols and meanings in temples, and how Ganesha and Buddha can share the same ground in peace.

There are zodiac signs around the temple (same as the Chinese) and different choices to leave wishes materially: on gold or silver leaves, or pulling it up to an outside-sitting Buddha on strings.

Different religions mix not just between Buddhas and Ganeshas on the market stalls, but on the shared grounds of the temples. And the Halal district. And monks studying English in the entryway of the temple.

There is another mystery though: what are clocks doing next to Buddha-statues? Based on their placement (and sometimes number) it can’t be purely for practical reasons. There is also the tiny fountain which has a beat. Timelessness achieved through ignoring the measurements? Or am I looking for reasons where are none?

Clock on the right

Chiang Mai shows another side of Thailand. Compared to Bangkok it’s a quiet, tiny town, though crossing a road still requires the skills of a stunt. The proportion of tourists compared to locals is higher, which changes the profile of the city. There are tiny shops and long market streets everywhere, they feel embarrassingly cheap when converted from Baht to CHF (not so much in HUF), with cheap and/or quality objects under ‘handmade’-signs. We decided to avoid all forms of human-elephant interaction, one of the biggest tourist attractions, since the treatment of riding elephants is cruel, and we can’t be sure other captive elephants are better off when they ‘just have to play’, so we will avoid the whole issue. The focus was on wandering and temples.

Lanna Architecture Center — Bedroom, corridor, altar and coffeehouse

We visited the Lanna Architecture Center, which is basically a well-preserved old house where nobility used to live, the decoration was intricate but subtle, e.g. woodcut patterns.

Wat Pratha Doi Suthep

After the struggle with the crowd at the Grand Palace we still dared to visit Wat Pratha Doi Suthep on a Buddhist holiday, and luckily it was much more quiet. The altitude and the stairway leading there probably helped.

The temple and its site was in the middle of a national park. If one could block out or get away from the group photographers who were pushing everyone out from the background, the place had a strong spiritual atmosphere.

Many locals and Westerners came for blessings, mechanically or cheerfully given out by monks. This included a generous showering of holy water and getting a white bracelet from a wise man in a beanie.

In a different weather, the top of the mountain also provides a great view of the city, but for us, the future was cloudy. However, we could witness a monk playing with two kids and a robot dinosaur.

Huay Keaw waterfall

The last few minutes before the flood/rain were spent at a beautiful waterfall. It also had a closing time when the tourist police (that’s a thing here) came to get everyone.

For tourists and expats it’s easier to find traditional Thai crafts here, like the silversmiths at the Silver Temple, where women can’t enter (?!?!). Not all the temple is silver, it’s mainly aluminum, but breathtaking nevertheless also from the outside. Monks and novices consider the craft as a practice of religion and also teach it to visitors. However I tried it later, when I was standing outside a nearby workshop. I stared so intently at the silversmith’s work that he just handed me the tools when he took a break.

My contribution is the curly line in the lower right corner

In another temple we could meditate with three elderly monks who were sitting there as stable as the statues behind them. It was a powerful experience to see them ‘at work’, I did not even dare to take a picture.

And the temples were still not over, although the last stop was at the local makerspace. There some very nice teenage boys tried to show what equipment they have with few English words and lots of smiles. Some machine parts were laser engraved with motifs and there was a separate corner just for jewelry. In total they have about 300 members, and looked like only a few were expats.

Next stop: back to Bangkok, just in time for some more temples before leaving Thailand! (They were beautiful, but the photos will have to suffice here. I haven’t seen a computer since we set off, and it’s hard to structure text on a tiny screen).

Temple of Dawn — why use gold when you can just smash some porcelaine plates on it?

One big Buddha — Wat Pho

And there was the Rattanakosin Exhibition Hall, which was probably the weirdest museum-experience so far in my life, partly because the number of guides was much higher than all the visitors in the building (just us 2). But that’s for another post, because let’s focus now on the change of scenery: Hong Kong!

10/07/2017Comments are off for this post.

Bang Saen — CHIC episode 3

On leaving Bangkok, we finally managed to catch a real public bus to the minivan for Bang Saen, where stopping the bus is just extra precaution for getting on and off, but not necessary. After correcting the tiny hiccup that the minivans leave from a different place than advised, we slept very well on the way.

Bang Saen is the closest beach to Bangkok, easy distance by car, the Balaton of Budapest. Which meant we were practically the only whites around among wealthier locals and the students of a fairly good university.

The beach and the sea has the magic ability to shut up critical thinking and more generally the mind. And if I see water I have to go in anyway. The first day was not ideal — high tide, strong wind — but the second was beautiful.

For some reason, everyone goes in wearing sports clothes, no one wears a swimming suit.

We also went (after our regular local-style dinner) to a local hip place, where we picked a drink by pointing at the menu randomly, and quickly discovered that organic here is not a trend yet. Matcha tea is not green tea! And what we normally consider breakfast food, like jam on toast, that’s fancy-fun food.

Still Jim Thompson’s house.

I love the spirit houses that are next to most regular buildings and look like doll houses. They provide home to the spirit in the ground that was disturbed by the construction and needs a new home. The family also has to feed the spirit. Some even have LED lights — they use that also in temples though, e.g. to highlight the donation box. Here LED is holy enough.

The money can be spent here in many ways: on oil, flowers, candles, or just throwing it down the hole. And buying clothes.

On day 2, we went to see the only monument around, a temple that had something to do with monkeys (Khao Sam Muk) but also functioned as a clothing store. It was not entirely clear, though many people came there to pray. The living monkeys (and I assume the statues too) were used to humans and were rather assertive in getting food from us, they were only scared of locals with slingshots.

We also found the pier where our last consumed fish probably died. It looked beautiful, if slightly dissolving.

And then we were humming our way through rice fields and forests to Chiang Mai. The train was in no hurry to get there, so we could really see everything where we pass, like the different, non-European shapes of leaves and all the green with some yellow and brown dots.

In memory of all the mangos we eat and drink, especially there, here is a song for those who follow us.

06/07/2017Comments are off for this post.

Bangkok — CHIC episode 2

Bangkok–CHIC episode 2

The greatest trick to Thailand (anywhere, but here it’s absolutely vital) is to treat each part of our day and our stumbling around as part of the sightseeing and not try to get from one place to the next.

Because we won’t, surely not how and when we imagined. Public transport is still a mystery, and the distances are huge, bus stops are rarely signed, and no itinerary or timetable is to be found. Uber was so far the most reliable, as the price was clear and the car had AC, even if that meant giving up consumer ethics for this week.

Real planning is not efficient here, so our days are mostly series of images and moments, like when the history museum was already closed (it was open, but there were no more guides), which left us snacking and talking about how stupid are passports and borders (imagine M.I.A. — Borders in the background). Or when we found a lovely bookshop, run most probably by someone who lived for a while in the US based on his accent. 3 monks were peacefully and quietly drinking their coffee there, which seemed like a good recommendation.

Our biggest luxury spending here is coffee, which equals to our lunch meals, as it’s approximately the same price as in Italy. There are some local variants of course, but I reserve my experimentation for the numerous street food places where we usually eat, the spices probably disinfect us too.

The evenings were spent either at the couch surfing meetup (where are the girls?), the evening market for tourists with blasting music and cheap clothes, or a high-end bar with live music and local guests, who did not appear to be of legal drinking age.

And we had our first huge rain that got us stuck at Jim Thompson’s House, which is a museum. Thompson revived international silk trading in Thailand. He seems like a beloved figure, if a little eccentric. As a businessman, he sticked to cottage-based production, mainly by women, and as an architect, he built his home here to live among his Asian art collection.

After the formidable rain, we also had our first success with public transportation: we took a boat — we already got soaked, it couldn’t get much worse. The canal gave a view of backyards and half-open rooms of haphazard construction, which clashed with the view of the skyscrapers behind them, which was how I visually imagined Bangkok. What I did not see before was that almost everyone operating the boat would be a woman. They were effortlessly jumping-gliding in flip-flops between the shore and the boat at stops. And how we found a boat? A nice gentleman in military uniform helped us out, as Google and local signs failed us, though I still love the Thai alphabet’s typographic rhythm and pattern.

Don’t show your feet to Buddha — or don’t ride? We will never know

Of course we went to the Grand Palace, it would have been really awkward to come here and miss it. Due to the intense heat and the even more intense crowd we just followed the short version with crowds of Chinese tourists, while avoiding the mourners of the king. Next to the palace there were places of real prayer and worship, and the Emerald Buddha (from jasper) also drew real believers, but I hope to find places that still feel sacred and I don’t have to navigate between so many selfie-sticks.

They had an interesting business model at the entrance of the Palace, where they sent back nearly all tourists to buy some more clothes to cover up: a shirt with longer sleeves, long skirt or pants, hats, etc, and some stores were conveniently located just there. Apart from the sarcasm, we could have thought of this ourselves beforehand if our heads were not melting off our necks in the sun, and this gave some kind of uniformity to the crowd.

Chinese and Thai Buddhist temples

And there were other places where Buddhism is still practiced. Amid the noise and easy-to-follow beat of Chinatown we found a Chinese Buddhist temple where people drop by to pray to a massive amount of cheap-looking Buddhas in different sizes and shapes, some still from the ascetic period of the prince.

In a Thai Buddhist temple an extended family was taking pictures with a distinguished-looking monk, in different group settings and alone, with 2 professional cameras. The temple was beautiful with an authentic look and soul, and it’s still used apparently.

The touristic Golden Mountain’s main attraction was definitely the view of the city. The altar did not command silence, did not feel spiritual, however the mountain itself was impressive. The first time we accidentally tried going up the wrong way, so we also saw the tiny cemetery behind it, which turned out to be a dead end (pun intended, sorry). Also I’ve met the biggest insect of my life, the Godzilla of centipedes.

My biggest question though: what are the mirrors for in the temples?

The Emerald Buddha at the Grand Palace was, among many other things, placed between two huge mirrors. Instead of being a tool for vanity and more at home in palazzos than churches, does it stand for self-reflection here? Anyone?