After four weeks of travelling in Thailand, I’m in a much better position to comment than I was when I wrote of my Thai expectations.  I was looking forward to the newness, the un-Europeanness, the un-Americanness. I was looking for something different. And yes, I found it. But in that newness, there was also a sameness. Anyway, I thought I might save you some angst and share with you my travel tips for Thailand.

Travel tips for Thailand – Bangkok

  • Do your homework. Read up on the scams in Bangkok before you go so that you’re ready and able for sneakiness shrouded in helpfulness. If a lovely local stops you on the street and asks if they can help and then tells you that wherever it is you’re going to is closed because of a Buddhist holiday… run.
  • Upload GRAB to your phone. This Thai equivalent of Uber works in Bangkok and up north. You get the option to charge or pay cash. Even if you never use it, it’ll give you a ball-park figure for the taxi ride you’re planning on taking. We used a GRAB to get from Bangkok DM airport to Kanchanaburi as the train/bus option would have taken forever. If you value your time, GRAB is the way to go. Be prepared to pay toll charges in addition to the fare.
  • Use metered taxis – they’re by far the cheapest way to travel in Bangkok. But make sure the meter is set to 35 baht when you start out and then confirm with the driver that they will use a meter.
  • Avoid TukTuks or use one for a short journey if you fancy the experience. As in Bangalore, many are in cahoots with local traders and you’ll find yourself hijacked and at their mercy.
  • Try the street food but choose your own – don’t just ask for chicken or you’ll likely end up with skewers of chicken livers. Point and smile.
  • Pick your temples. There are so many that it’s easy to succumb to sensory overload.
  • While in Bangkok, venture down Susie Q walking street to the street that runs parallel to Khao San Road – less populated, with better food and drinks.
  • If you plan on entering and leaving Thailand from Bangkok, you may be able to leave some stuff you thought you’d need but don’t or even the winter clothes you wore in. Pack them separately and leave them at the hotel for collection when you return. It’ll save you lugging them around.

Travel tips for Thailand – General

  • Learn how to say please and thank you, hello and goodbye – politeness is big.
  • Bring earplugs – not for the noisy lot in the room next door, but for the bullfrogs that come out in full volume in the monsoon rains.
  • Book train tickets well in advance or you’ll end up stuck in 3rd class or standing.
  • If you’re travelling by plane internally, use Bangkok Airways at least once, just for the experience. Loads of room. Tasty food. VIP lounge for all passengers. Loved it.
  • Take the time to talk to some monks. You’ll see them everywhere in Bangkok and Northern Thailand. Not so much down south. Don’t ever sit in seats reserved for them. The inevitable ejection is embarrassing (and no, I didn’t but I saw it happen).
  • Pack lightly – but be sure to have clothes that cover your knees and shoulders if you plan to visit temples. Wear slip-on shoes or sandals – undoing and redoing laces is a pain.
  • Pretty much everything gets cheaper as you move from Phuket and Krabi to Bangkok to Chiang Mai.
  • For regional travel up north, use Green Bus.
  • Everywhere other than the Post Office charges 20 baht for stamps. The Post Office charges 15 baht – the additional 5 baht is a standard handling fee. Just sayin’.
  • Shop around for currency exchange. Check a few places and use the one with the narrowest spread between the buy and sell rate. Downstairs in SUV airport in Bangkok, near the Skytrain, is where I saw the best rate. But as it was still in the airport, I didn’t expect it so passed it by.
  • Thailand doesn’t do diet – so no light or sugar-free sodas.
  • Sangsom is not a whisky (even though it’s what you’ll get if you ask for a Thai whisky) – it’s a rum.
  • ‘Maybe tomorrow’ works better than just saying no!
  • Avoid PDAs, especially if you’re down south.
  • Do at least one cooking course… it’s a great way to have dinner.
  • Check your travel insurance – most policies won’t cover motorbike accidents in Thailand.
  • Reduce your fluid intake before you travel by train unless you’re travelling 1st or 2nd class. If you’re not, pack a handkerchief liberally sprayed with perfume or bring some menthol lip balm to rub beneath your nose.
  • Before a massage, do some squats to rid yourself of any excess wind that could pop out later.
  • Read up on the malaria situation – am not at all convinced that we needed to take (very expensive) malaria tablets.

Am I glad I went? Yes. I am glad to be leaving? Yes. Did I get the difference I was looking for? Yes. Would I do it again? Not sure.

No, that’s not true. I’d definitely go back to visit my friends in Chiang Rai and maybe check out Laos and Myanmar while I’m up there. If I went again, I’d spend more time in the mountains and less time at the beach. although I could do a month on an island if I had my own kitchen. Next time though, I’d be smarter, surer, and better prepared for that difference I craved. This time, it took a lot out of me.

Beach in Thailand

I asked for quiet. For peace. For empty beaches and fresh nice food. I asked for local cooking, small bars, and good coffee. I asked for sunsets and sunrises and a door that opened to the sea. They said the quiet was impossible. Not in Thailand. Never in Thailand. Everywhere has people. Everywhere is crowded. Everywhere is popular. I was hrummphed on a number of travel forums when I asked for suggestions. But himself found it. Koh Yao Noi.

Little Yao Island sits beside its neighbour Koh Yao Yai. It’s predominately Muslim, turning the country’s religious stats on their head. Some 96% are Muslim, which goes a long way towards explaining the quiet. Even though it was off-season, there was little evidence of clubs or party hangouts. Quite a number of restaurants (Muslim-run) don’t serve alcohol. And when you do find a shop selling the hard stuff (Green Coffee House has a few bottles, and a liquor store beside the mini-mart about 100 m beyond 7 Eleven on the opposite side of the road has a good selection), you get it wrapped in a black bag. I’m partial to a sundowner, especially on my hols. And I could only have one each evening, as the concept of diet soda hasn’t hit Thailand – it’s full fat or nothing. That’s the choice you get.

We stayed at Kao Yao Seaview Bungalows, arriving way before check-in and a day early after a long, long train journey from Kanchanaburi. All the bungalows bar one were wooden houses on stilts, with lovely verandahs. The one we’d booked was the only cement building in the place, no stilts but a patio. I wasn’t at all impressed. Admittedly I was running on empty and crankier than a teething toddler and I did apologise for my grumpiness the next day when sleep had restored some semblance of sanity. In hindsight though, it was the way to go. Marble floors are so much cooler than wooden ones. And it was hot.

Koh Yao Noi sunrise

Koh Yao Noi sunrise

Koh Yao Noi sunrise

Our days took on a sameness, a routine of sorts. Up to watch the sunrise. Well, I got up once at 6am and was on alert for the rest of the week should a clear, cloudless morning happen (but it didn’t). Then a couple of hours work. Then off on the bike to Pasai Beach for a mango roti brunch and maybe a Thai massage. Then we’d go for a swim or drive down some side road to see what was at the end. We found floating fish farms. We found Muslim fishing villages deep in the mangrove swamps. We found mosques that had been built for a while and more that were in the process of being built. And we didn’t find one Buddhist temple. It couldn’t be more different from what we’d seen so far.

Koh Yao Noi fishing village

Fishing village

Koh Yao Noi mangrove swamp

Mangrove swamp

Koh Yao Noi Rice Field

Rice paddy


Pasai Beach Koh Yao Noi

Rubber Tree Koh Yao Noi

Rubber tree

Of course, being an island, everything is more expensive. The market village offers the usual clothes and bags and bangles that appeal to the backpacking brigade at three times the prices as in Chiang Mai. Massages run to 400 baht an hour compared to 150 in Chiang Rai or 250 in Bangkok. That said, had we only come to Phuket and then hit the islands, I probably wouldn’t even comment. I’d have known no different. But I’m glad we went further afield.  There is far more to this country than Krabi or Phuket. Far more to it than beaches and bars. Far more to it than cheap resorts and expensive spas.

I had plans to go over to Krabi or Phuket for the day but I never mustered up the energy needed to get there. We did go on a boat trip around the islands one day, sharing our boat with a young lad from Valencia, Spain, over here for the last six years teaching English in Bangkok, and his friend from the Philippines, a qualified nurse now also teaching English in the city. It was great to be on the water but landing on the islands was mad. All the boats were doing the same tour. We saw the same people at each stop. We were lucky in that it was off-season – it has to be crazy altogether in December. Himself would go off exploring. I’d amuse myself by taking photos of people posing for their Instagram snap or working on the perfect selfie. We’d been picked up by a songthaw – a motorbike with a crate-on-wheels attached to it and taken to the far end of the island to catch the long-tail boat. On the way back, we hit low tide, so he anchored a couple of hundred metres off our beach and dropped us into the water. We waded home.

I’ll admit to being a little discomfited by being so obviously white and non-Muslim. I made sure none of my bits was bared but even so, it felt strange. Hearing the call to prayer as I lay, half-naked, sunbathing on a beach was a little surreal. Having to search so hard for a naggin of whisky or rum made it taste better than local hooch has a right to be. Being in Thailand and not seeing one Buddha was disconcerting and disorienting.

Himself loved it. It played to his vision of retiring to a shack on a beach. He’s planning on two months next time. Off-season. Maybe October and November. Me? I’d last a month at most, and then only if I had my own kitchen. While the novelty of eating out (or being cooked for) has a lot to be said for it, when I do it every day, week on week, it loses its appeal.

Last summer, when P&R came to visit after their Danube cruise, P talked of craving normalcy. I get that. Completely. We’re nearing the end of the trip, currently on our way back to Bangkok and then to Doha. And it’s been quite the experience.  sensory overload. I’ve run out of bandwidth for new; I’m craving sameness and KFC. And I’m missing my kitchen.

Thirty, or even twenty years ago, had you offered me the chance to travel the world for 12 months, I’d have leap-frogged a litany of lit candles to get to the top of the queue. Don’t get me wrong. I like to travel. I like that I can work from wherever I go, as long as I have Internet. I like seeing new places and doing new things. But I need some contrast, some downtime, some normalcy. Otherwise, it all becomes a blur of braggadocio, with pixelating placenames and conversations starting with ‘Where was it that….’

Getting to Koh Yao Noi

Take the ferry from Thalane Pier outside Krabi to ThaKow Pier on Koh Yah Noi or a speedboat or long-tail (cheaper) from Ban Rong in Phuket to Manoh Pier on the island. Last ferry from Phuket runs at 4pm.

Koh Yao Noi

Finding food, booze, and coffee on Koh Yao Noi

Pan’s Local Food is a winner – we went twice. Very fresh. And they do a decent local rum and coke. Ciao Bella on Pasai Beach is Italian run… they do great roti. Charlie Bar is the place to go for cocktails – JJ makes a mean Margarita. And from there you can order food from Chef Aon at Koh Yao Bistro, next door. At the high end of the island’s offer but delicious. The restaurant at Kah Yao Seaview Bungalows serves bigger-than-usual portions of fresh food, too, especially for breakfast. The best Morning Glory we had was at Thakhao Bay View. This amazing Thai vegetable is like a water spinach and it’s delicious.  They also do the best coffee we found on the island and had just opened the roadside Sala Café at the bottom of their steps. We got in on a TV shoot with a famous Thai actress Nam Wham – background shot, of course, but amusing to see the locals go a little crazy. The Green Coffee Shop comes a close second for hot coffees and the Garden Café does a great iced coffee.

Koh Yao Noi

We caught the early morning speedboat and then had breakfast near Phuket. I watched as a monkey ran into the café and helped himself to a bag of nuts. Who needs TV in Thailand. Bangkok Airways is a dream to fly with – a lounge for all passengers – imagine. We have a couple of nights to go in Thailand and then it’s off to Qatar. Am hoping that the city behaves itself and that it being my second time to bumble around Bangkok, I’ll be more familiar with it all. I really don’t want to have to fight with it again.

Bumper Cars

Our second night in Kanchanaburi. I’d busted my foot jumping from a height to catch sight of the train looming down the death railway, so I decided to stay put. Himself was itching to get out – probably away from me, if the truth be told – so he went wandering. He did what he usually does and followed the music. This is what he found.


In Thailand, as in much of Southeast Asia, daily life follows a pattern. Get up at dawn, work till it gets too hot, then take a long break, if possible sleeping next to a fan. Starting at about sunset, the best part of the day slowly begins. People wake up. The streets come alive with streetfood vendors selling fried and barbequed chicken and pork parts, fish, bananas, and many others that you can’t identify, and in some cases, things you don’t want to identify. Roasted scorpions for example.

Many towns in Thailand go beyond street food and have night markets or bazaars. We were staying on a riverfront floating house in Kanchanaburi near the infamous Bridge on the River Kwai, part of the Death Railroad built by Allied prisoners of war and forced Thai and Burmese labourers during World War II.

Kanchanaburi River Kwai

Kanchanaburi train

We had spent the day riding on the train, visiting Hellfire Pass, war cemeteries, and museums. It was getting late, and I was a bit hungry, so I decided to take a walk and see what I could find. I walked toward the sound of blaring music, which I presumed was coming from a noisy nightclub. Instead I stumbled upon what was by some way the best Night Market I had seen in Thailand. The first part looked like a carnival, complete with a Ferris wheel, bumper cars, merry-go-round, and other children’s rides.

Bumper Cars kanchanaburi night market

Bumper Cars

Ferris Wheel  kanchanaburi night market

A really touching scene was an area where there were about 20 child-sized tables with mums and dads sitting with their children painting with watercolours.

Future Artists  kanchanaburi night market

Future Artists

And yes there was a big stage with a live band playing and singing for all they were worth. Noisy and loud, but it added to the family atmosphere.

Then there was the night market itself. It sprawled in several directions. One covered aisle must have been a half kilometer long. Hundreds of stalls and shops. They sold everything and anything.

Market Stalls  kanchanaburi night market

Market Stalls

Food of course, and clothes and housewares and eyeglasses and automotive parts and shoes and dishes and cleaning supplies and mobile phones and phone covers and local handicrafts and…

 kanchanaburi night market

 kanchanaburi night market

 kanchanaburi night market

…stunning locally made furniture…

…and a sprawling area of garden shops.

Garden Shops  kanchanaburi night market

Garden Shops

I still don’t know if what I stumbled on was something like a State Fair, or if this night market is a permanent feature of life in Kanchanaburi. But if you’re near the Bridge train station in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, of an evening, and you hear some blaring music, head towards the sound. You’re in for a treat!


Death Railway Kanchanaburi

Although nearly three weeks in Thailand, I’m still shackled by Western expectations. The first thing we did when we arrived in Kanchanaburi on Wednesday was head to the train station to book tickets to Surat Thani for Friday morning.

Two tickets to Surat Thani, please. Second class. Aircon. With seat reservations. On the 9.35. On Friday, says I, not for a minute thinking that he’d do anything but smile politely and hand them over. Instead, he laughed.

Friday? All trains full, he said. Saturday, too. And Sunday.

He showed me the screen. Our only option was to travel overnight in third class with no aircon. We’d have to catch a bus to Ban Pong from Kanchanaburi and then catch the evening train from there, arriving in Surat Thani at around 6 am on Saturday morning. We could, of course, have gone back to Bangkok and paid more than we were prepared to pay to fly (internal flights are pretty cheap in advance; not so cheap last minute). So, we chalked that one up to experience and decided to travel as the locals do. In the meantime, we had a full day to putt around and see what we’d come to see: the Death Railway.

The Burma Railway, also known as the Death Railway, the Siam–Burma Railway, the Thai–Burma Railway and similar names, was a 415-kilometre railway between Ban Pong, Thailand, and Thanbyuzayat, Burma, built by the Empire of Japan in 1943 to support its forces in the Burma campaign of World War II.

Remember the movie, Bridge on the River Kwai (that was Bridge No. 277)? We could’ve seen that from our raft, had we not upgraded to a better raft – with aircon. I know my limitations and himself would like to get home alive. Anyway, the movie was filmed in Ceylon, not in Thailand, and the jury is still out regarding how well it tells the story – but it lays the basis.

At 5.30 am the following morning, we joined what looked like a Thai women’s group on the platform near the Bridge on the River Kwai in Kanchanaburi and took the train to Nam Tok. These ladies, all in their early 60s, put the kids to shame when it came to selfies and giggles and boisterous behaviour. When they weren’t checking out the selfies, they provided in-carriage entertainment for the next couple of hours. I’d been looking forward to the train journey for months. I’d read all sorts of blog accounts that made it sound spectacular and terrifying. And perhaps, had we come straight from Bangkok, I would have been more wowed. But after Phu Chi Fa, not so much. Yes, it was spectacular but more because of what it is than what you see. That this was built by prisoners of war in such a short period of time with very little by way of materials and tools, is quite something. And in that heat and humidity?

Riding the Death Railway at Kanchanaburi

Kanchanaburi Death Railway

Kanchanaburi Murray Griffin POW

Drawing by Murray Griffin, a POW

Hellfire Pass (Chong Khao Kad) Museum

When we arrived in Nam Tok, we were assailed by songthaew drivers offering guided tours and all sorts. We just wanted coffee. We went with Bai who recognised our immediate need and understood and took us to the 7 Eleven. It’s mad to see these dotted around the country in the most unlikely of places but they do decent coffee. From there we went up to Hellfire Pass (Chong Khao Kad), a 500-metre cutting hewn out of the rock by allied POWs in just six months in 1943. The museum works on a donation basis and offers headsets with an audio tour. As we wandered through the trail, we listed to Australian POWs, some of whom are still alive, give an account of their time there. It was quite something. All of them, without exception, were still looking for the humour in it all. The accounts were horrendous. Life must have been unbearable. And yet they still marvelled at the scenery, the birds, the flowers. They remembered the sunsets, the teak forests, the dawn chorus. And they came back. On Anzac Day each year, a dawn vigil marks the work done and remembers the thousands who died making it happen. The Hellfire Pass Museum was under renovation so not all the trails were open and the main museum was closed. But still, it was so worth the hike. For some weird reason, I felt inordinately proud of those boys, for getting through the ordeal and still managing to see the beauty of the place.

Kanchanaburi Hellfire Pass

Kanchanaburi Hellfire Pass

Kanchanaburi Hellfire Pass

Sai Yok Noi waterfall

The main attraction of the Sai Yok national park in the Tenasserim Hills, the waterfall provided much relief from the darkness and horror of Hellfire Pass. October is a school holiday in Thailand. The kids were out playing in the water. Innertubes bobbed around. Families picnicked. Restaurants and cafés did a steady trade as the locals and holidaymakers alike made the most of it. As it’s closer to the railway station, most people stop here first. I’m glad we didn’t. I needed to decompress. I could still hear the voices of those Australian soldiers in my head and was still battling with how they managed to cope with it all and stay alive. I needed some levity.

Sai Yok Waterfall Kanchanaburi

Sai Yok Waterfall Kanchanaburi

Krasae Cave

On our way back to Kanchanaburi, Boi detoured and took us to see Krasae Cave. We’d driven right past it on the way up on the train. It sits just off the edge of the tracks and back in 1943 would have been where the POWs rested if they’d been given a chance to rest. Today, it’s a shrine and for Thai people, it’s more of a commemoration than the Hellfire Pass memorial. After navigating a series of traders, and more colourful Asian ladies who really know how to style it, we found the cave inside which a large Buddha reigns supreme. A large notice board has fortunes printed in both English and Thai. I watched as a couple of Thai tourists shook out their sticks and checked what was in store for them. When I tried, a family sitting across the other side of the altar, laughed and shouted over instructions. Although Buddha was present, it seemed that the energy in this particular cave temple was more lighthearted than in the cities.

From here, we could walk the tracks, see the trestles up close, and marvel once again at this feat of engineering. Why it isn’t one of the wonders of the world, I don’t know. The second of the two daily trains came through as we were there. It didn’t take a lot of imagination to go back in time and hear the clink-clink of hammer on chisel. The tourists hanging from the windows taking selfies seemed strangely oblivious to it all. I wondered if they realised just what had gone into building these tracks.

As an American engineer said after viewing the project:

What makes this an engineering feat is the totality of it, the accumulation of factors. The total length of miles, the total number of bridges — over 600, including six to eight long-span bridges — the total number of people who were involved (one-quarter of a million), the very short time in which they managed to accomplish it, and the extreme conditions they accomplished it under. They had very little transportation to get stuff to and from the workers, they had almost no medication, they couldn’t get food let alone materials, they had no tools to work with except for basic things like spades and hammers, and they worked in extremely difficult conditions — in the jungle with its heat and humidity. All of that makes this railway an extraordinary accomplishment.

Kanchanaburi Stylish Lady

Death Railway Kanchanaburi

Death Railway Kanchanaburi

Death Railway Kanchanaburi

Kanchanaburi proper

Later that afternoon, back in Kanchanaburi, we visited the War Cemetery to pay our respects. We missed out on the Chungkai Cemetery, started by the POWs themselves in the camp. But we did get to see the Chinese Cemetery, lying next door to the Allied one; it’s everything the other one isn’t. The haphazard mix of Chinese burial mounds and Thai chedi reliquaries gives it a Disneyworld feel. Definitely one to visit if you’re in town.

We were staying on a raft house on the river. Each time a boat passed, our place rocked. The party boats that travelled up and down the river with revellers put paid to any thoughts of an early night. The bars along Mae Nam Kwae Road would give Khaosan Road a run for its money. It’s here the backpackers and expats gravitate. There was a healthy measure of older British men with young Thai wives (?) and some restaurants and bars that seemed to cater just for well-dressed Thai men.

Raft house Kanchanaburi

We ate one afternoon at Mangosteen Café and Books sharing a platter of local specialities (including the famed Issan sausage) and enjoying every morsel. I’ve been impressed with the English-language book offer in Thailand. Everywhere we’ve been has had a least one large bookstore – Kanchanaburi has at least two. But it wasn’t until the next day, as we were driving to the bus station, that we saw how big the town really is. There’s a whole other side of it that’s not remotely touristy, alive with market traders, the sing-song waves of conversations soothing the scented air.

Mae Nam Kwae Road Kanchanaburi

Thankfully we noticed that our lovely helpful ticket seller had sold us train tickets leaving from Nakhon Pathon and not Ban Pong. So after a quick diversion to get that changed and a heart-stopping few minutes thinking we might have to up the line to come all the way back, we were sorted (same guy and he didn’t bat an eyelid).

We caught a local bus to Ban Pong. Quite the experience. The massive steering wheel was chest-high on the driver and the gear stick was level with his ear. We had five hours at the station to wait for our train.

There’s been lots of waiting in Thailand. Time seems to have a different meaning. No one is any great rush anywhere. The country has one massive ‘ish’ after every entry on every timetable. I’m Irish. I should be used to it, I know.

Bridge on the River Kwai Kanchanaburi

Bridge on the River Kwai – the river was renamed after the movie came out as there was no bridge on the River Khwae. But this one spanned the nearby Mae Klong. Cleverly, the Thais renamed this stretch the Khwae Yai (Big Khwae), and the original Khwae became Khwae Noi (Little Khwae).

Party Boat Kanchanaburi

Some interesting articles

An excellent guide to what’s where in Kanchanaburi relating to the war.

Excellent article in the New York Times about the contrast in commemorating the Asian dead and the Allied dead.

Chiang Rai White Temple Hands

Our bus trip from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai passed without incident …. until I spotted my mate through the window at the terminus, jumped off, and left my camera behind me. So excited at the thoughts of seeing him after a gap of 17 years, I lost the run of myself. We were on the road home before I noticed. What was to be a peaceful, trouble-free week hadn’t started off too well. But the girl on the ticket desk was very helpful. She made a few calls, and told me to come back in a hour. When I did, I’d be reunited with my camera. I’d been pretty ticked off when himself had left his phone on the steps of Wat Arun and hadn’t noticed till we’d crossed the river and disembarked the ferry. Thanks to a chap we’d bought a painting from and the auspices of a good monk, he got it back. But now it was my turn. On the double.

We stayed with our friends on the fab Santi Buri golf course, ’cause that’s where they live. P gave me cooking lessons – she cooked and I took copious notes. S took me golfing (the first time I’ve played 9 holes in twice as many years – I can still get the distance but I’m still crap around the green). We daytripped to the Golden Triangle and Phu Chi Fa. We had a body-crushing 2-hour Thai massage in a temple. [I had to bite my knuckle to keep from crying and am getting worried that I might be getting a little into pain :-)] And when we weren’t hanging out by the pool catching up, we visited the sights.

Wat Rong Khun, aka the White Temple, Chiang Rai

Wat Rong Khun, better known among foreigners as the White Temple, is something to behold. Think Guadi meets Kahlo, or Frozen meets The Addams Family, and you might get some hint as to what to expect. If you pay attention, you’ll find contemporary characters like Spiderman, famous people like Michael Jackson and superbrands like Hello Kitty mixed in with the demons and  flames. As temples go, this one is a baby. Opened to visitors in 1997, it’s really an art exhibit giving a nod to the Buddhist Temple genre. It’s designed, constructed, and owned by Chalermchai Kositpipat, who says of himself:

I am simply a painter, who shares this world of ours, as a small unit in human society, paying my due and hoping to contribute by a small measure to the planet earth. I intend to remain a painter for the cause of Buddhism until the last day of my life. Nothing can ever change me or divert me from this course, not fame, nor contempt.

This evolving work of art is mind-bogglingly brilliant. Kositpipat has another 120 or so people working with him. Some of the buildings are bare white walls, standing like canvasses awaiting the master’s touch. Were it not for the couple of thousand Chinese tourists who disembarked from a fleet of buses before we arrived, it’d have been better still. It’s a poser’s paradise, saturated by selfies. Spare me. If I ever win the lottery, I’m going to rent the place for a couple of hours at sunset or sunrise and have it all to myself… and maybe a few close friends. Plenty more pictures on the Any Excuse to Travel Facebook page, but these give you a sense of what it’s at. Colour is scarce – the gold building photographed houses the public loos. I didn’t have time to queue to see what was inside – next time.

Chiang Rai White Temple

Chiang Rai White Temple

Chiang Rai White Temple

Chiang Rai White Temple Loos

Baan Dam, aka the Black House, Chiang Rai

From white to black and there couldn’t be more of a difference. The product of the weird and wonderful artistry of Thawan Duchanee, blogger Roy Cavanagh describes the Black House thus:

Part art studio, part museum, part home, Baan Dam is an eclectic mix of traditional northern Thai buildings interspersed with some outlandish modern designs. Baan Dam is a thought-provoking combination of sanuk, the surreal and the sombre and [..] it’s fair to say that some of the artwork and themes on display won’t be to everybody’s liking.

The prudish side of me was a little taken aback by the signs for the loo. The squeamish side of me could have done without seeing those worms (if that’s what they are). But the quirky side of me enjoyed its day out. Duchannee, who died a few years back, had the wherewithal to amass an extensive collection of stuff on his travels. It’s not the ashtray-from-Brighton or the tequila-shotglass-from-Tijuana stuff we’re taking about but rather furniture, and snake skins, and sculptures. It’s a mad place altogether. But it, too, was besieged by hordes of visiting Chinese tourists although this time, thankfully, they didn’t land until we were leaving. If you’re planning what to do in Chiang Rai, do this first. You need a fresh mind to take it all in. Duchannee apparently came to the world’s attention with his piece ‘A Drawer’. Said to explain Buddhism to the West, it’s one I’d love to see but can’t find photos of anywhere. If anyone knows more, let me know .

Thawan developed a unique style of artistry using black and red tones, based on the styles of traditional Buddhist art to explore the darkness lurking within humanity. His pictures initially shocked many people as being blasphemous to the Buddhist religion and some of his early exhibitions were attacked. But many leading Thai intellectuals supported his work. Kukrit Pramoj for one claimed “his art is to be understood as giving life to myth.”

Lots more photos on the on the Any Excuse to Travel Facebook page. Check them out if you’re curious to see more.

Black House Chiang Rai

Chiang Rai Black House

Chiang Rai Black House

Chiang Rai Black House

Wat Huai Pla Kung, aka Big Buddha, Chiang Rai

It’s hard to keep track of the many faces of Buddha. Before coming to Thailand, Buddha to me was a short, chubby fellow with a big belly and a bigger smile. Since visiting the myriad temples in Bangkok, Ayutthaya, and Chiang Mai, I’ve come to know his various embodiments, but I’d never imagined seeing him as a woman. And he isn’t. Or rather this Big Buddha is really a big, big, depiction of the goddess of Mercy, Guan Yin, ‘an East Asian bodhisattva associated with compassion and venerated by Mahayana Buddhists and followers of Chinese folk religions.’ No surprise there considering the influence of Chinese art and the spectacular Chinese cemeteries dotted around the country. She is revered for her 10 great protections from fire, water, falling, politics, prison, curses or poisons, demons, evil beasts, disputes or wars, and unlucky children.

Standing some 79 metres tall (even though she’s sitting), Guan Yin can be seen from the city. We took the elevator to the top, inside her head, and looked out through her eyes and through her bindi – her third eye. The views are incredible. The wall carvings are reminiscent of the intricacies of the White Temple, and the overall affect is jaw-dropping. I was particularly taken by the donation system here. Instead of, or in addition to, giving money, you can purchase a large bag of rice for 100 baht that goes to feed the elderly in an old folks home. You buy the bag, attach your name, and then put the offering on the altar. Constructive giving.

Over to Guan Yin’s left (stage left) is the nine-tier pagoda, another architectural marvel. Again, Wat Huai Pla Kung is a relative newcomer to the Chiang Rai tourist offer (although it was built for Buddhists, not tourists). Dating back to 2001, its main attraction isn’t the pagoda or the Guan Yin, but the head monk, Phra Ajarn Sobchoke, who apparently can tell the future. Indeed, P had some great stories about how the money he needed to build the temple came to him, as needed, be it for a new boiler or whatever. The day we were there, he was being interviewed. His translator/interpreter/aide stopped and said hello to us, asking us where we were from. The great man himself smiled at me and I felt that tingle that tells me I’m in the presence of greatness. Magic. Again, more photos on the Facebook Page.
Wat Huai Pla Kung, aka Big Buddha, Chiang Rai
Wat Huai Pla Kung, aka Big Buddha, Chiang Rai
Wat Huai Pla Kung, aka Big Buddha, Chiang Rai
Wat Huai Pla Kung, Phra Ajarn Sobchoke, Chiang Rai

And the rest of Chiang Rai

There’s plenty to see and do in the city. We left the Blue Temple till next time. And the Oub Kham Museum which covers

..the history, culture, handicrafts and heritage of all the different Tai groups of Southeast Asia. Thais, or Siamese, are just one branch of the Tai ethnic/linguistic family that also includes, among numerous other groups: Lao, Northern Thai, (or Lanna), Shan, Tai Lue, Tai Yuan; the Black, Red and White Tai groups of north-western Vietnam and the Dai of Southern China, from where all Tai groups originate.

We skipped the Phiphitthaphan Up Kham museum with its ‘wide-ranging collection of artifacts, pictures & clothing from ancient royal kingdoms’ in favour of the Hill Tribe Museum, which gave us a fascinating account of life in the surrounding hills and mountains. Well worth seeing BEFORE you go to Phu Chi Fa. It knocked some of the stories we’d been hearing about responsible tourism on the head, particularly regarding elephant rides. Chiang Rai is a gem of a city but I wonder how much we’d have seen of it had we been tourists instead of visitors. They pointed out a tiny little shop opposite the Overbrook Hospital, frequented by locals, that is packed to the seams with all sorts of traditional, hand-dyed and woven Thai clothes. We came across this gem when we went for pizza at a Thai place, Ban Lom Jen, that opens just on Fridays to serve pizza until they run out. It’s in the village of Ban Rimkok and I’d be hard pushed to find my way there again.

Buddha near Ban Lom Jen homestay Chiang Rai

We had a great week. Massive thanks again to our wonderful hosts. Early Wednesday morning, we caught a plane to Don Mueang International Airport near Bangkok. Asia’s oldest operating airport, it dates back to 1914 and is thought to be one of the world’s oldest international airports. From there we caught a taxi East to Kanchanaburi, to the River Kwai, for just 1500 baht. The Thai equivalent of Uber, GRAB, is our new friend.

Other interesting articles about Chiang Rai

Getting from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai by bus

Okay, so not an article, but a short animated video on Guan Yin and the wish for children.

A short history of Chiang Rai

Good photos of the inside of the Pagoda at Wat Huai Pla Kung

Good photos from the Black House

Wat Phra Kaeo Chiang Rai Buddha Day

I’ve missed mass for two Sundays in a row. I’m excused though, as I’m travelling. Anyway, the only Catholic church I’ve seen was from a boat. But Tuesday was a Buddha day in Thailand. They don’t do Sundays, as we Roman Catholics do. Thailand practises Theravada Buddhism in accordance with the four lunar phases: the new moon, the full moon, and the two quarter moons. On these days, the faithful get together at the temple, bring their offerings, and pray. And in Chiang Rai, my friends invited me to go with them to Wat Phra Kaew. I didn’t need to be asked twice. 

We left the house at 5.30 am having packed the cooked rice and cut flowers into the car. We headed to the market to buy food for the monks. We weren’t alone. Others, their destination marked by the white clothes they wore, were doing the same. At Wat Phra Kaew, we put our flowers in vases, our rice in pots, and our food on plates. We then lit three sticks of incense for the Three Treasures: Buddha, the dharma (what my friend explained as the Buddha Bible), and the Sangha (monks, nuns, laywomen, laymen). We added two candles, which appeased the RC in me. As I watched people make their offerings, I was struck by the mindfulness of it all. This wasn’t just throwing something on a table or in a box. Each offering was made in prayerful silence, hands together, head bowed. Buddhists are serious about their karma.

Wat Phra Kaew Chiang Rai Buddha Day

From there it was into the prayer hall. The monks sat along the wall on large chairs that looked like mini sofas. A length of tables ran in front of them. The faithful greeted friends and strangers alike with the traditional S̄wạs̄dī Ka (for women) and S̄wạs̄dī Krap (for men). Being the only Western face in the room, I was introduced more than most.

Wat Phra Kaew Chiang Rai Buddha Day

The head monk (?) came out and began the order of proceedings bang on 6.30 am. In what sounded a little like the responsorial psalm, he chanted something to which the congregation replied. This went on for about 30 minutes. Then came their equivalent of our sermon. A younger monk sat, cross-legged, on a wide chair on the dais, brought what looked like a fan in front of his face, and spoke from behind it. He then removed the fan and read from a long, narrow, rectangular piece of bamboo. As he read, instead of words, I heard music and although the meaning escaped me, the beauty of the message was clear. I’ve never heard a voice with such timbre, such resonance. The congregation’s response sounded so flat in return.

Wat Phra Kaew Chiang Rai Buddha Day

Next, all the monks started to chant in unison. While this was going on, those who preferred to do so, brought up their rice offerings. Others brought in the food offerings from outside and placed them on tables before the monks. I figured this was probably in line with our offertory procession – just far more inclusive. More still had their iPads out, and their phones, and were merrily snapping away. One man was moving about the room with pen and paper and seemed to be taking a silent roll call.

Wat Phra Kaew Chiang Rai Buddha Day

When the offerings had been made, the monks continued to chant. I noticed a general scramble as people dipped into their baskets of tricks (which contained rice bowls, incense, candles, flowers, food) and pulled out a dish and a bottle or urn of water. They then poured the water into the bowl slowly, almost in harmony with the chant, and set it back in their baskets. Later, when the ceremony was over, they’d pour it on the garden outside the temple door to give strength and good deeds to spirits, thus honouring their dead. I thought this particularly nice. The temple’s gardens

As the monks continued to chant, some people put money into envelopes and brought them in person to the head monk. Others I’d seen discreetly put their offering into a donation box. Either works, depending on the need that’s being fed. Buddhists, too, have a collection plate it would seem, although a far less obtrusive one.

Even though I didn’t understand the words, I knew we were getting the final blessing at about 7.50. The telltale rustling and closing of missals, the packing up, the anxious seats – all pretty universal symbols of a ceremony reaching the final stretch. From there, we went over the school, for the annual group photo. Yes! What luck I have. I’ll be on the wall of Wat Phra Kaew in Chiang Rai for the next year – me and the monks and my friends and the rest of the congregation. I’ll be easy to spot. They’ve promised to send me a copy. The temple has a school for young monks with more than 100 in attendance. They were photographed first. So young. So young.

Wat Phra Kaew Chiang Rai Buddha Day

From there it was off to eat in the canteen. People sat at long tables after helping themselves to rice dishes, soups, doughnuts, and sticky rice wrapped in leaves. Quite the feed. This is usual practice, apparently. They bring food for the monks and the monks, in turn, feed them – the circle remains unbroken.

I had a quick few minutes to look around before we headed home. Wat Phra Kaew is home to the Emerald Buddha (Phra Kaew Morakot), discovered in the mid-fifteenth century when the chedi housing it was struck by lightning. The original is now in Bangkok in a temple of the same name on the grounds of the Royal Palace. The one in Chiang Rai, carved in China from Canadian jade, is a slightly smaller, but true copy.

Wat Phra Kaew Chiang Rai Emerald Buddha

Wat Phra Kaew is also home to the largest and, as it is said, most beautiful Buddha images in Thailand: Phra Jao Lan Thong. The brass and copper image is thought to be 700 years old. Housed in what I think is the ubosot (or is it the viharn?), the building itself is fiercely guarded by two large Naga. I’d spent my temple time so far thinking these were dragons, but they’re snakes, mythical creatures said to be half-human with all sorts of back stories.

Wat Phra Kaeo Chiang Rai Buddha Day

Wat Phra Kaeo Chiang Rai Buddha Day

Wat Phra Kaew is a beautiful temple. It was a beautiful ceremony. They are such beautiful people. Perhaps it was because I’d put in the hours or maybe it was because the place was overrun with benevolent monks,  I was very taken with the place. It felt holier, less touristy than others I’ve been to, more real. And this despite the up-to-the-minute technology and QR codes,

Wat Phra Kaeo Chiang Rai Buddha Day

Wat Phra Kaew Chiang Rai

The museum wasn’t yet open but the gardens are littered with all sorts of statuary. Elderly monks were linked back to their quarters. Young novices hung around. Other still were on their phones (something I simply cannot get my head around). It was all go and yet all so serene. In my short time in Thailand, I’ve come to appreciate the respect in which monks are held. Bus stations, train stations, and airports all have seats reserved for them that you sit in at your peril. People part in the streets to let them pass. It’s all so very, very different (and sadly so) from our priests. I was struck, and not for the first time, by the simplicity of their concept of making merit.

According to Buddhism, good deeds or ‘acts of merit’ bring happiness to the doer both in this world and in the hereafter. Acts of merit are also believed to lead towards the final goal of everlasting happiness. The acts of merit can be performed through body, speech or mind. Every good deed produces ‘merit’ which accumulates to the ‘credit’ of the doer. Buddhism also teaches that the acquired merit can be transferred to others’ it can be shared vicariously with others. In other words, the merit is ‘reversible’ and so can be shared with other persons. The persons who receive the merit can be either living or departed ones.

This was one of the highlights of my trip to Thailand, an honour and a privilege indelibly marked on my consciousness. I left, promising myself to continue making merit and to be a little more mindful in thought and prayer. Valuable lessons indeed. Thank you, P&A, for sharing your faith with me.

Interesting articles associated with Buddha and Buddhism

The use of incense in Buddhism
Candles in Buddhism

Legend of the Emerald Buddha

More on the Nagas

How to address a Buddhist monk

The monks’ rules

More on making merits

Phu Chi Fa

Had we done it right, we’d have gotten to P̣hū chī̂f̂ā (Phu Chi Fa) in time to see the sunrise. From what I’ve read, we’d have been in the company of hundreds of Thais and a handful of Western tourists who’d made the journey north of Chiang Rai to this rather special, spectacular place. [A little like the hordes that descend on La Boca, Cuba, to see the sunset.] Phu Chi Fa, which translates as pointing to the sky, is a mountain area and national forest park in Thailand in the northeastern end of the Phi Pan Nam Range, 12 km to the southwest of Doi Pha Tang at the eastern edge of Thoeng District in Chiang Rai Province. The drive from Chiang Rai through the farmland and the rice fields and the villages is the stuff that novels are made of.

On the road to Phu Chi Fa

Phu Chi Fa

The road up to the base of Phu Chi Fa is not for the faint-hearted. Our car struggled at times, particularly on the last leg. When we came to the main T-junction, signposts gave us a choice of going left or right – both said 4km. As fans of Jack Reacher, and clued into his rules for living, we went left and then took a slip road up into the park. At times it felt as if we were climbing vertically. The valleys fell away below us as the mountains rose in the distance. The higher we went, the more jungle we saw. After our trip through the Hall of Opium, I’d little trouble conjuring up images of columns of young men ferrying packs of heroin through the narrow paths. It wouldn’t take much to get lost in those mountains and local knowledge would keep you lost for as long as you wanted. Fifty years ago, the only way up would have been by elephant or on foot. Twenty years ago, there were no trees. Today everything we saw was new growth. It was overcast and muggy, early afternoon. The shadows played with my imagination. Driving through the hill tribe villages and seeing them about their work was a little surreal. We’d visited the Hill Tribe Museum in Chiang Rai earlier in the week and what we’d seen there had all come to life. Cages of roosters lined the road. Blankets covered with corncobs provided colour. Cabbage fields and bean patches marked the origins of the vegetables we’d seen in the city’s markets.

Phu Chi Fa

Phu Chi Fa

When we finally got up to the parking area, there was just one other car there. The sign said we had a 400-metre hike to get to the top. I debated. It looked steep. I didn’t want to put my back out with two more weeks left in country.  But I didn’t want to regret not going either. The view from where we were was quite spectacular and I wondered if it could be improved upon. In the end, I went.

It was tough. It was steep. The steps were slippy. The place would be impassable after even a little rain. We heard voices and laughter in the distance but didn’t see anyone. I was back on the Opium Trail again, turning each corner with anticipation. When we got to the top, we saw the markers. Unknownst to ourselves, we’d been walking along the Thailand/Laos border. Stepping from one country into another and back again brought out the kid in me. Looking out over Laos, on the village below, felt a little like being on top of the world. Sunrise would indeed be quite spectacular but the vista laid out in front of us wasn’t half bad.

Path up to Phu Chi Fa

Phu Chi Fa

Phu Chi Fa

Phu Chi Fa

Border marker at Phu Chi Fa

A couple of local kids were dressed up in their traditional costume, accessorised with sunglasses. They had a sound system on the go and were belting out a song. Another local was selling lottery tickets. There’s much debate about whether or not to give kids like these money. Some say that doing so ties them into a life of begging. Others say hey – they’re busking. They’re not just sitting there with their hands out asking for dough; they’re doing something to earn it. I’m in this camp but we’d left our wallets in the car and could only rummage up 10 baht between us. It felt like a compromise of sorts.

Phu Chi Fa

We walked down the way we came and wound our way back to the big T-junction. We had time, so we decided to take the right turn we’d ignored earlier. The road is far better, less of a climb. There’s more evidence of homestays and tourist prep. There’s a visitors centre and at the base, and lots of stalls (wo)manned by locals selling clothes and hats and scarves. Sewing machines were visible. This was their work. Yes, some of the stuff was brought in wholesale, but some of it was crafted from factory-produced materials – another compromise.

Phu Chi Fa

The sign here said Phu Chi Fa was some 800 or more metres up a gradual incline. One girl came down it in heels so it’s obviously very doable, nothing like the almost vertical climb we’d endured. This was where it was happening.

I was glad, though, that we’d taken the path less travelled up to Phu Chi Fa, that we’d prevailed, that we’d sweated it out. It was as if we’d earned the view. Next time, I’ll come the night before and be there to see the sunrise. Along with all the other tourists.

Interesting links for Phu Chi Fa

A lovely account with some great photos of sunrise over Phu Chi Fa

The logistics: getting there, staying there, where to eat

Some more incredible photos

Phu Chi Fa

Golden Triangle - look over at Laos

The city of Chiang Saen in Northern Thailand was once the capital of the Lanna Kingdom. It’s had a turbulent history, captured by the Burmese in the sixteenth century and then plundered by King Rama I in the early 1800s. It was left for dead for about a 100 years before gradually being reborn. It’s still enjoying its childhood years though, and has a ways to go before it’s fully grown again. Today, it’s probably most famous for its proximity to the Golden Triangle. We drove around the neighbourhoods marvelling at the old city walls and the ruined stupas and chedis. We stopped by the Mekong River and looked across at Laos, unable to see much with the low-lying cloud but it was nice to know it was there.

Golden Triange, Chiang Saen, Old city walls

Golden Triangle Chiang Saen Old city walls

Golden Triangle Chiang Saen

Golden Triangle Chiang Saen

Sop Ruak, the Golden Triangle

I’m not quite sure what I was expecting to see at the Golden Triangle but the almost carnival feel to the place wasn’t it. There’s any number of statues of Buddha and dragons and elephants, all living so close together than you’d think someone had run out of space. You can pay to climb scaffolded stages to take your photo with them…for a donation of course. It’s a bit fun-fair-ish, kitsch even, but still quite amusing. Known locally as Sop Ruak, it’s where the two rivers meet, the Mekong and the Ruak. Back in 1971. a US State Department official first christened it the Golden Triangle – the sides being Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand. We’d come to learn about the opium.

Golden Triangle

Golden Triangle laughing Buddha

Golden Triangle

Golden Triangle

Hall of Opium

Billed as one of the best museums in the country, the Hall of Opium, aimed at teens and young adults, offers what it calls Edutainment. It’s the first time I’d come across this expression encapsulating the idea of education for fun. I’m a fan. From the minute we entered, they had me. We walked through a cave-like corridor in semi-darkness. Soft lights lit the carvings on the wall depicting all sorts of mad dreams. Adding these to the rather dreamy music, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the effects of smoking opium might be. Unknownst to ourselves, we had climbed to the third floor, where we’d learn about the first 5000 years of opium, the role of the drug and its trade in Asia, and the machinations of the Opium Wars. On the second, we’d learn about the impact of illegal drugs, the effects of drug abuse, and international efforts to curb this abuse. Before we left, we’d pass through a Hall of Reflection.

I hadn’t realised that there are 70 species of poppy and that the one I’m most familiar with, the Flanders poppy (Papaver Rheoas) is not what the drug comes from. Only Papaver Somniferum has the sap needed. Morphine and codeine are made from the ripe poppy straw. In North India, Turkey, and Tasmania, the flower is grown legally for medicinal purposes. In Europe, the poppies grown are for the seed – for cakes and oils and Hungarian mákos.

For nearly the whole two hours it took to watch the videos, listen to the narration, and read the texts, we had the place to ourselves. But then a busload of Chinese tourists caught up with us, their noise making it impossible to hear anything that didn’t come with headphones. This part of the world is very popular with tourists from China. Hundreds, nay thousands of them visit daily. But no matter. I learned a lot.

I didn’t know that Ben Franklin had been an addict or that some Indian elephants were fed with opium to keep them calm in the wars or that recreational use dated back to the 1800s. I was interested to see that on a list of signatories to the Second International Opium Conference in Geneva on 19 February 1925, Ireland appeared as the Irish Free State. I learned about the Boxer Rebellion  – an anti-foreign, anti-colonial, and anti-Christian uprising that took place in China between 1899 and 1901. I learned about the victory at San-Yuan-Li where 100 peasants armed with spears and farm tools sent the British packing.

Regarded by the British as a minor skirmish, to the Chinese it is regarded as a live example of a spontaneous uprising by the indigenous Chinese people in response to the actions of an actively aggressive invading foreign power since 1644.

I was a little shocked to learn that the when China outlawed opium, Britain took up the slack and made sure the addicts got their fix. In Thailand, in 1906, the Opium Department was established. In 1927, the government nationalised private opium shops. It was legal for ethnic Chinese to smoke the drug in Thailand, the Thais had to do so in secret. I was amused to learn that the high, angular pillows given to customers of opium dens were designed to make them feel uncomfortable as the effects of the drug wore off. They’d be less inclined to linger and so make the bed available for the next user. Opium was made illegal in Thailand in 1959.

I hadn’t known that Bayer had developed heroin (the heroic drug) in 1898 to relieve pain without the addiction of morphine. Someone in the R&D department obviously got something wrong. Morphine addiction was a serious issue and garnered the moniker ‘The Soldiers’ Disease’ after soldiers in the US Civil War got hooked on the stuff. Cocaine was also causing problems. But as far back as 1500, Kjana Chuyma, a Mayan Priest who himself used the cocoa leaf, had warned his followers:

And when the white man will try to do the same and he will allow himself to do as you do, all the contrary will befall on him. Its juice which to you will represent the power of life, to your dominators it will be an obnoxious and degrading vice. While to you natives, it will be an almost spiritual nourishment, to them it will cause idicoy and insanity.

We watched videos of the rise of drugs in the USA and I was surprised to see that Irish gangs first controlled the US drug trade. We saw how drugs of all sorts affect the brain and the body. And as we walked through the Gallery of Excuses and Victims, we saw the names of greats like Elvis Presley, Kurt Cobain, and Diego Maradona featured on the walls.

I was fascinated by the exhibition on smuggling and was really taken with the idea of dissolving heroin in syrup and passing it off in a jar of peaches. Or stuffing it into raw cabbage heads. Or mixing it with clay and making Buddha amulets. I played an interactive game where I went through an airport, spotting likely smugglers and how they were smuggling. This really was edutainment.

The final part of the exhibit  – the Reflection Hall – was where we got to read quotations from the Bible, the Talmud, and the Qur’an and to think about words of wisdom from the likes of Lao Tzu, Gandhi, and Crowfoot. What I took with me though was a line from Argentine novelist Julio Cortázar:

The evolution from happy to habit is one of death’s best weapons.

It’s well worth going out of your way to see.

While researching drug use in Thailand, I was a little gobsmacked to read a conversation on Reddit about where to get/do drugs in the country:

Just head to a local Bangkok pharmacy and buy some Tramadol, a legal opiod [sic]. Pop 2 of the green/yellow capsules for starters, and you’ll have the essence of an opium buzz.

Golden Triangle Hall of Opium

What we missed in Chiang Saen

Of the half dozen or so temples in the town, the one that grabbed my fancy and will be on the list for next time is Wat Sangkha Kaeo Don Han (วัดสังฆาแก้วดอนหัน) where sketches on brick slabs tell stories about the various lives of the Lord Buddha. A boat tour that takes in the Myanmar waters and a stop at a market in Laos is also on my list. Or perhaps a river trip. It’s also possible to charter a boat to travel the Mekong to Chiang Khong (1.5 hrs) or up to Sop Ruak (Golden Triangle). All duly noted for next time.

Interesting articles

Education for fun – article in the NY Times

Opium throughout history – PBS

The High Lands: Exploring Drug Tourism Across Southeast Asia


When I’m anxious, I don’t sleep. I get antsy. And I’m early. We were at the train station in Ayutthaya about an hour before the train was due to leave, having shared a taxi with a couple of American tourists who also stayed in our Homestay. They were houseless and jobless making the move from CA to NY – he had taken the NY bar exam and was waiting for results. In the meantime, they were travelling. I was bricking it, wondering if our tickets would be fake. For one heart-stopping moment, I thought we were done. Someone was sitting in seat 26. But then I checked our seats and we had 27 and 28. Empty. Whew. We sat and fretted until the ticket inspector had checked our tickets and marked us off on his paper plan of the carriage. I can’t tell you what the relief felt like. We were on our way to Chiang Mai.

The train to Chiang Mai

Shortly after boarding, a lovely uniformed hostess gave us each a bottle of water and a snack. Impressive. Later again, we were served a lunch of rice, mahi-mahi fish curry, and some spicy hard-boiled eggs. I ate the rice. Himself ate everything. We could have soft drinks and tea/coffee at will. The wooden floors, the reclining seats, the aircon  – and all in a second-class carriage – added to the feeling of otherworldliness as none of it was posh – all very basic, but clean and worn and well-travelled. Every third or fourth station, we’d stop for longer than usual and a man would sweep the carriage, cleaning up after those getting off in preparation for those getting on. The scenery moved from the flat rice fields to lush jungle. I’d packed an old iPhone loaded with music I’d not listened to in years, plugged myself in, and just sat, mesmerised, watching the world go by. At times it was if we were in Serbia – we could have jogged faster than the train was moving – but we’d get there, eventually some 2.5 hours later than scheduled, but hey – we’d been fed again. And watered. And really looked after. That’s that box ticked.

on the train to Chiang Mai

Staying in Chiang Mai

We headed straight to the guesthouse I’d booked based on rave reviews. The room was tiny. No aircon, with a bucket of water by the toilet to flush it. We’d booked for three nights and had I been 30 years younger, I might have stayed. But no. At 11 pm that night we roamed the streets looking for a better place – and found one at Kristi House. Big room, big bed, aircon, and a flush toilet. All pretty basic but we had room to move around. We were set. The city is packed full of places to stay suiting all sorts of budgets, from basic hostel dorms to plush hotels. The old city, set inside the city walls, is the place to be, if you’re a walker. It’s here you find the restaurants, the temples, the markets. I’d done some research, happening on a great blog by Two Wandering Souls and had a short list of what I wanted to do in the couple of days we’d be there.

Thai massage in Chiang Mai

I’m a great fan of Thai massage. I’d had a couple in Bangkok and really enjoyed them. Do they hurt? Hell, yes! But man, do you feel good afterwards. The Women’s Correctional Facility in Chiang Mai runs a massage programme whereby the inmates get to learn the skill to prepare them for a job in the outside world on release. There’s no booking system. You show up as early as possible in the morning – I was there at 7.40am – and if early enough, you get a spot straight away; if later, you get to come back at an appointed time. Spaces usually fill by 10.30. There are no cubicles – everything is open plan. Uniformed guards wander around with clipboards; the women are very deferential and a little anxious. I’d thought long and hard about why I chose this over all the other places in the city. Was I bordering on voyeurism? Was it the whole prison thing? Or was it some sort of altruism, my tiny contribution to a great cause? While I’d like to think it was the latter, hand on heart there was an element of curiosity in there, too. I bought some things in the prison shop and chatted for a while with the girl in charge there – she told me proudly that everything had been made by the inmates. None of them looked like hardened criminals. They were young and sweet and had obviously gotten caught up in something bad to have landed inside. From what I read, most are there because of offences relating to recreational drugs. But the numbers are staggering:

There were 42,772 women prisoners in 2017, almost double the figure in 2008, which stood at 26,321. Thailand is ranked fourth in the world for having the highest number of women prisoners, after the United States, China, and Russia. However, when considering the incarceration rate per 100,000 of the national population, Thailand has the world’s highest rate of women prisoners.

Women in Thailand, particularly from the hill tribes, bear most of the responsibility for their family – they raise the children, look after ageing parents, and work to pay off their husband’s debts. The pressure is more on them than on the men to provide and support. And that drives them, out of necessity, to do things they mightn’t normally do – perhaps only once to make a quick score. But if they’re caught, they’re caught. There’s a chain of other parlours around the city, staffed by ex-prisoners. The three branches I passed had 5 star TripAdvisor ratings and had we had more time, I’d have tried one.

Prison massage in Chiang Mai

Thai cooking in Chiang Mai

Like Bangkok and Ayutthaya, the food in Chiang Mai is wonderful. But here there’s a massive focus on cooking schools. We lucked out in that the Asia Scenic school was just across the road from our hotel but all the schools will pick you up and drop you back. We booked ourselves in for a half-day evening course starting at 5 pm, ending at 9 pm. Our instructor, Pop (Poppy) explained the rules. We’d only get a refund if all 8 of us took ill. Once that was clear and introductions over (three young couples, two American and one Swiss, and us) she took us to the garden and gave us a hands-on introduction to the herbs we’d be using. I hadn’t realised that there were three types of Basil or that Thai ginger wasn’t the ginger I normally use. From there we went to the market to check out the spices and the noodles.

Asia Scenic cooking school Chiang Mai

We visited the oldest market in the city, a wooden structure that has been standing for more than 100 years. It has all sorts of teas and spices and noodles and fruit and veg as well as the usual run of clothes and such. I wanted to see a Durian – the fruit that every hotel I’ve been in has banned. Large signs everywhere saying NOT to bring the fruit into the hotel. It’s a spiky thing and looks harmless enough. But once the skin is off,  it stinks. We had a quick look around and made a note to come back on the morrow. Then it was back to the kitchen to cook.

We each cooked three dishes – my choices were Pad Thai, coconut soup, and the local noodle dish Khao Soi. The instruction was hands-on and the experience was great. But we had to eat what we cooked and it was far too much. With so many flavours, many of the new, there was far too much going on in my mouth for me to really appreciate what I was eating. My Pad Thai wasn’t bad but my Khao Soi wasn’t a patch on the one the little old dear on the corner had cooked up for me the previous day. We got a cookbook to take with us and a promise that they’d answer any questions we had when we got home. Practice, I think, with practice, I’ll be fine.

Temples in Chiang Mai

The city has its fair share of temples. No surprise there. Over 300 in the whole city with 75 in the Old Town.  We were looking for a Monk Chat, a programme run by five temples where you can sit with some young monks and chat away, in English. They get to practice the language and learn about other cultures. You get to satisfy your curiosity and ask them anything you want to know. Rather than specifically choose one, we wandered.

We happened into Wat Chedi Luang, with its magnificent Chedi surrounded by stone Singalese elephants. The temple is also home to a small shrine of the City Pillar. Only men can enter as it’s believed that women, because they menstruate, would make the place unclean. It was here that we stumbled on a Monk Chat programme. I wandered over to four young monks sitting around a table and asked if I could talk to them. In their early 20s, they’d all come from Laos. One of them was all chat and took his job seriously. Another was shy. A third was too busy on his phone (which he’d borrowed from his brother) to pay much intention. And the fourth was busy writing notes on something. The chattier pair were fascinating. One had joined up at 18 and was now, at 23,  studying humanities at the university. The other, like every boy in his village, had joined at 10. I was shocked. All the boys in your village joined a monastery at 10? Who was left to get married and have babies? They roared laughing. And I tell you, I’ve yet to hear a more engaging sound or see a more beautiful sight than the genuine nature of those laughs. These young men were free, truly free.

Wat Chedi Luang Chiang Mai

By complete accident, we discovered the famous Crystal Buddha, Phra Satang Man, in Wat Chiang Man. This small figure apparently dates back to the eighth century. And there it was, on display, to the public, with not a security guard in sight. Many of these temples have priceless artefacts on show and the level of trust is quite something. In Budapest and Dublin, we chain the tables and chairs left out overnight on the restaurant patio. Makes you think.

Crystal Buddha, Phra Satang Man, in Wat Chiang Man Chiang Mai

In the Viharn Lai Kham at Wat Phra Singh, we saw some beautiful murals from the early 1800s which depicting local life and scenes from the Jataka. The pillars and back walls were a beautiful red and gold which I found out later gave the viharn its name. Lai Kham is red lacquer patterned with gold leaf.

Viharn Lai Kham at Wat Phra Singh Chiang Mai

But of all the temples we’ve seen so far, the old and run down Wat Lam Chang was my favourite. It seemed more lived in, more real. There’s some sort of argy-bargy going on between the monks and the city over adjacent land and that maybe makes it even more real. Known as the temple of the tethered elephants, it has plenty by way of elephant statuary. But it has quirky other stuff, too. Stuff that isn’t as obviously religious but still laden with meaning.  Check out the photos on Facebook to see more.

Wat Lam Chang Chiang Mai

One of the temples we visited (I can’t remember which, but quite possibly Wat Chedi Luang) turned the heart crossways in me. I walked into one of the Viharns and saw what looked like an elderly monk sitting, meditating in a glass case. I swear, I could count the hairs on this head. I waited and watched to see if he’d breathe or move or blink an eye. He didn’t. Strange stuff.

Probably the most famous temple is the city is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. It’s a little outside the city with a 300+ step climb, so I wasn’t going there ever. It’s way too early in the trip to do my back in. But himself was all set to hike up the Monk’s Trail and the Pilgrim’s Path. But we had torrential rain that turned the surrounding hillsides into mud slopes.

Leaving Chiang Mai

From Bangkok, I’ll remember the touts and scammers. From Ayutthaya, I’ll remember the packs of wild dogs roaming the streets and the temple grounds. With Chiang Mai, it’ll be monks and soliders, an odd mix that colours the streets and gives you pause for thought. We caught an open-mic night at North Gate Jazz Co-Op and saw some eight-year-olds making great music with drums. Other than that, it was restaurants and bars and relatively early nights. It’s a grand spot, home to many retired expats who enjoy the hippyish lifestyle and laidback vibes. We amused ourselves over a drink one night by checking out what it would cost to set up shop here for a few months – just for a break. Me? I’m holding out to see Chiang Rai.

Interesting links

A feature on NBC about the Prison massage program

Conference on Fostering Rehabilitation and Reintegration to Open Opportunities for Multi-Stakeholder Efforts in Social Reintegration

Interested in moving to Chiang Mai

Cityguide for Expats in Chiang Mai

I woke up on Sunday with a horrible feeling that everything that could go wrong, would go wrong. So much for Murphy being an optimist. We were heading to Ayutthaya, some 80 km north of Bangkok. The scam-merchant for whose patter we’d fallen was to send a driver to take us to the station. And he did. He came. He collected. And he deposited us at the station where he bought our train tickets, handed them to us, parked us at the platform and went on his way. It was only after he’d left that I checked to see what seat we had and in which carriage, given that we were to have a seat in second class with air conditioning. But no. The scam continued. We had the cheapest of seats – some 20 baht (about 55 cents) – third class standing. No aircon. And on Thai Rail, the journey to Ayutthaya would take some 90 minutes. The fishwives of Moore Street would have taken me for one of their own, such was the litany of names I called him.

We boarded and sat for about 10 minutes before we were ousted by passengers who had seat reservations. We nabbed another two seats and got away with another 20  minutes before being upseated again. At this stage, the train was crowded. The air was stale. And it was bloody hot. The holy souls were flying out of purgatory as I wished the worst of all haemorrhoids on our TAT agent.

Once in Ayutthaya, we had directions – very specific directions – and had we followed them, we’d have walked through the Architectural Park, home to many ruined temples, remnants of a time when this city was once the capital of the country. We managed to find the ferry – the old town is on an island bordered by three rivers.  But we took a wrong turn and ended up walking for what seemed like an eternity in some stifling humidity. Hotter than Hades it was. Hades, where I hope my TAT man ends up after his haemorrhoids inflame. Turn off the aircon, Satan, and make him stand.

Staying in Ayutthaya

We’d booked a homestay, in Nature Home, not really sure what it was. It turned out to be an ensuite room in a complex where the couple lived themselves. A B&B. And it had aircon. Himself was happy because it had a café with good coffee. I was happy because it had aircon and wifi. The chap in charge told us that the best way to see the city was to take a river tour which stopped at three  of the myriad temples in the city. There are loads of them, some working, some restored, some in ruins, and more again with no trace at all other than a mention in the city’s archives. We’d be taken by TukTuk to the river and then dropped back to the B&B or to the night market. All for 250 baht per person. My sincerity meter was obviously not working so I left it up to himself to decide and he went with it. He liked the guy. He’s a better judge than I am because it turned out to be great.

We shared the boat with a German family of 3, and a New Zealand/German couple with the cutest Swiss baby. He’s a skydiving instructor and they were on their way to someplace in Perth for a six-month contract. A nice way to live and see the world. I had a fleeting moment of envy until I remembered that I, too, could live the nomadic life had I not inherited all those fruit trees.

Temples in Ayutthaya

We docked for 20 minutes at each of the three temples on our itinerary. The first, Wat Phanan Choeng, warned us not to leave our shoes outside because they might walk. It was mobbed with locals paying their respects to the 19-meter-tall gold Buddha, the temple’s main attraction.

According to legend Phra Chao Sai Nam Phung, a King who ruled before the founding of Ayutthaya, wanted to marry the daughter of a Chinese emperor. When the Princess named Soi Dok Mak arrived by boat the King was not there to welcome her. After having waited in vain a long time for the King’s return, the Princess was so sad that she killed herself by holding her breath. When the King finally returned he was stricken with grief and built the Wat Phanan Choeng on the spot where she was cremated.

Wat Phanan Choeng Ayutthaya

Wat Phanan Choeng Ayutthaya 19-meter-tall Buddha

Wat Phanan Choeng Ayutthaya

Wat Phanan Choeng Ayutthaya

The second,  Wat Phutthaisawan, had something going on with roosters – there were so many of them in and around the statues of the old Kings. Apparently, they’re a nod to the then future King Naresuan, who was heavily into cockfighting when he was a prisoner in Burma. And there I was thinking they’d some religious significance. He was so big that three movies have been made about this life.

Wat Phutthaisawan

Wat Phutthaisawan Ayutthaya

Wat Phutthaisawan Ayutthaya

Wat Phutthaisawan Ayutthaya

By the time we got to the third, Wat Chaiwatthanaram, I was templed out. We didn’t go in, but rather looked in from the outside and hung out by the river watching the traffic go by. Apparently, there’s a replica of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat inside the complex, but hey ho. It’s impossible to see it all. Built by the king in honour of his mother, this is where the locals come, dressed in national costumes, to take their portrait photos. Had we had another 30 minutes or so, we’d have seen it set against the sunset.

Wat Chaiwatthanaram Ayutthaya

Wat Chaiwatthanaram Ayutthaya

Even before we went on the river, we’d wandered over to the Architectural Park and started with the ruins of Wat Mahathat. It’s fascinating. The statues are mostly headless – a few too many for it to have been an accident. Apparently, the statues were deliberately decapitated when the Burmese invaded in 1767. Spotting Buddha body parts around the site was a little surreal. But perhaps the most famous image here is the sandstone Buddha head entwined in the roots of a Banyan tree. I hadn’t realised the significance of Buddha heads in the religion. Images differ widely from country to country, apparently, but I found this about the one in Ayutthaya:

Among many theories, one theory suggests that the tree grew around the head of the Buddha when the temple was left abandoned. Similarly, another theory also states that a thief moved the Buddha head away from the main temple in Ayutthaya to hide it. But after moving the stone Buddha head away from the ruined main temple, it is believed that the thief could not move the head beyond the walls surrounding the temple. Instead of that, the stone Buddha head was left by the wall where it got nestled in the tree roots which have grown and entwined around it.

Wat Mahathat Ayutthaya

Buddha Head at Wat Mahathat, Ayutthaya

Wat Mahathat Ayutthaya

Wat Mahathat Ayutthaya

Wat Mahathat Ayutthaya

Headless Buddha Statues at Wat Mahathat, Ayutthaya

Wat Mahathat Ayutthaya

Wat Mahathat Ayutthaya

Eating in Ayutthaya

When it came time to eat, there was no question. We headed to the Night Market where you can sample just about everything there is to eat on a Thai menu. My favourite discovery was Ka Nom Tom – Thai coconut balls.

River traffic in Ayutthaya

Massive barges float up and down the rivers of Ayutthaya, pulled and pointed by colourful tugboats. Next to them, locals criss-cross at will, fishermen keep an eye on their rods, and the long-tailed dhow skippers race at up to 100 km an hour.  Add to the mix the commercial ferries and tour boats and it gets to be a busy spot.

Houses on stilts line the banks not looking nearly as attractive as the many houseboats that are tethered to their moorings. If they ran electricity and had aircon, I’d consider staying a few weeks.

After the hassle and hustle of Bangkok, it was a joy to visit this lovely, laid-back cradle of culture. Check out some more photos on the Facebook page.  Suitably recharged, I was all set to head north to Chiang Mai until I remembered that part of the TAT scam is that the tickets sold are not only overpriced but fake! I didn’t sleep much that night. Standing for the guts of an hour in the third-class carriage of a train perfumed with fresh urine from the rancid loo is one thing. Not getting a seat on a booked-out train or worse still, not discovering the forgery until an hour into the journey… that’s the stuff my nightmare was made of.




More about Ayutthaya

Temple architecture

Weird and quirky things we missed including the Million Toy Museum and the Sword Village

Top 25 things to do in Ayutthaya

Night Market