Monday, 22 February 2010

more photos from the Flower Market

Bangkok's Chinatown Flower Market

more photos from Wat Phro

more photos from Wat Phro

inner temple at Wat Phro

stunning, primary coloured roof decoration- newly renovated
trying to resemble the farang statue

Amulet Market and Wat Phro

Just across the road from the Grand Palace the street is lined with stalls and shops specialising in religious amulets and statues to bring you good luck in whatever area of your life you are lacking. We see monks, dressed in their customary yellow robes, scrutinising the tiny models of buddha under magnifying glasses and a whole mixture of goods on sale from tiny metal frames in which to place your sacred photos of King Bhumibol or your family to false teeth, from giant plaster cast statues of monks in cross legged positions
to old fashioned audio tapes and second hand shoes.
We make our way up to Wat Phro, which is incidentally the next wat along. There sure are a lot of wats here, wat wat! This is the location of the largest reclining buddha statue, some 46m long. It's almost bursting out of it's temple walls,
kind of like Alice in Alice in Wonderland when she eats one of the sweets which makes her grow uncontrollably.
jasmine and rose garlands in front of the buddha
A buddha in reclining pose represents the last stage of enlightenment, nirvana. He really is a sight when you first walk through the temple's doors and look up into his golden armpit!
one of the many buddhas on show in Wat Phro
The wat is also the site of the most buddha statues altogether and they do seem to go on for miles, filling the courtyard corridors. I partake in a little Buddhist ritual of placing a coin in every steel monk's bowl lined up along the edge of the temple interior, which creates a continuous bell like pinging noise and fills the hall. Not sure what the significance is but I'm pretty sure I have to make sure I place a coin in each of the hundred or so bowls. Another charming ritual is to pay for a swatch of gold leaf which you then attach to a small buddha, doing your bit to turn him gold!

more photos from the Grand Palace

an impressive annex building to the throne hall/ Greg in front of one of the manicured trees of the Grand Palace's gardens

example of the ceramic cutwork facade decoration/ a particularly characterful 'guardian'

more photos from Wat Phra Kaew

Greg in front of the golden walls of the main chedi- notice the very fashionable pants, provided by the front office- you must wear long trousers and sleeves when visiting a royal location.

garuda decoration


Ko Ratanakosin (the imperial quarter)
Ko Ratanakosin is the area of Bangkok in which the Grand Palace of King Rama I, built in 1782 and it's many Wat (temples) is located. The area was chosen as a new royal capital for the country of Siam in the late 18th century when the era of the Chakri dynasty had begun with the ordainment of King Rama I. The previous royal capitals of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya were superceded by Bangkok and the region beside the Chao Praya river, where thousands of Chinese immigrants resided, was chosen as the site for the most elaborate set of royal buildings in the country's history. The Chinese contingent was relocated further along the bank and the extensive building work begun. We'd been advised to arrive early to gain entry before the tour parties of the day descended and we managed to avoid the rush of the afternoon, but the morning period still proved to be exceptionally busy. It must be the highlight of everyone's visit to Bangkok. The imperial city is enclosed within 2.9 km of tall white washed walls and the impressive tiled roofs and spires of the Wats appear tantilisingly over the top, like a gilded toy city. The main wat houses the most famous buddha statue, the Emerald Buddha (he is green, but is, in fact made of jade) who sits only 66cm tall with a lap span of 48cm. He sits sloft a high throne and multilevel altar which is completely adorned in gold leaf decorations. He is clothed according to the season, and King Bhumibol himself performs the ceremony of the changing of the buddha's attire. We must remove our shoes on entering the temple of the Emerald Buddha (whenever you ascend to the level on which an image of the buddha rests you must remove them) and it's a sacred place. There are buddhists sitting on the carpet, always with the soles of their feet pointing away from the buddha, praying to him with their palms together and their heads bowed. But, in general, the buddhists inside and outside the temples here don't seem too sombre. They purchase single lotus flower stems and, outside the temple doors, dab them in the bowls of holy water and annoint each other on the head with them. But this is all done with laughter and enjoyment and posing to have their picture taken while doing it.
The architecture and facade decoration of the wats and associated buildings also echo this frivolity in the flashy gold painted garudas (mythical creatures, half man, half bird) and colourful mirror mosaics and tiles that cover all available surfaces. The rooftops and gables of the buildings are especially proud with their distinctly Thai shaped finials and sculpted red and gold diarama scenes.
The giant chedi made of gold mosaic tiles is of the Sri Lankan bell-shaped design and houses what is said to be a part of the buddha's breastbone. The chedi's bell shape, leading up to a spire that reaches into the sky is to represent the path to enlightenment associated with buddhism and is a shape which can be seen again and again in Thai culture, especially in the royal crowns and the hats used in traditional Thai theatrical performances. Other buildings in the complex, such as the imperial library, represent a distinctly different type of facade adornment in the form of clay ceramic 3D motifs, the main ones being flowers. Bits of coloured ceramic pots are expertly cut and placed to become petals and scales of dragons and completely encompass the exterior walls and roofs. The colours are much more subdued than the brights of the main wat and there is no use of harsh gold, so popular with the others. It's evident King Rama I was keen to display many kinds of architecture and design here. I also especially like the stone guardians in the shapes of warrior men, Chinese style lions or winged mythical bird men who stand two apiece on every entrance way and the continuous painted mural which extends round the entire length of the inside of the city's walls, depicting scenes from the story of Ramakasin.
The inner temple complex of Wat Phra Kaew gives way to the broader area of the Grand Palace, former residence of the King (he now uses Dusit Palace, a little further north in the city). This area of throne halls, armoury museums and official buildings is not as breathtaking as the temple zone but the gardens of carefully trimmed bonsai trees and statues of the sacred elephant are very impressive also. A white elephant is said to be of extra special good fortune in Thailand and it is customary for the King to be in possession of one (which he is now). The saying 'a white elephant',meaning a dud, comes from the fact that any albino elephants were destined to be cared for rather than worked, and therefore useless.

Memories of Thailand/ Malaysia

-Greg's too tall here- he hits his poor little head on the shop awnings, door mantels and food cart parasols. He also manages to trip up occassionally on the uneven pavements, steps up and down the sidewalk and jumping over open drains.

-The smell from the open drains is like the smell from the pipe outflow of a washing machine (dirt and chemicals) plus occassionally sewage and cooked food.

-Jasmine and rose garlands are made daily by skilled florists to sell as token gifts to the Buddha. You find them hung on railings in front of Buddhist shrines and they represent te impermanence of life- the flowers withering.

-Spirit shrines adorn every home, shop and office. They are normally red and gold or white and gold and are to house the spirits which belong to that site and protect them so that no evil will come to the site's residents. Food and water is 'given' to the spirits every morning as nourishment and flowers are laid or hung on the corners.

Land of a Thousand Smiles

You might think it a bit cheesy but Thailand really is the Land of a Thousand Smiles. I can say this with confidence because of the sheer number of times I've been smiled at while being here. And yes, a fair few of them were people tryiing to get me to come into their shop or offering me a tuk tuk ride, but a lot were genuine greetings or passers by in the street. It's a lovely feeling and, of course, it makes you want to do it back. I walk around with a permanent grin on my face. I've been trying to fathom the reason for this perpetual hospitality and kind naturedness. And I think it might have something to do with the way people are brought up with their religion, Buddhism and patriotism to the King, King Bhumibol, whose image is everywhere. It's a very foreign concept to us Brits that everyone dotes on the King and it is a very sinful deed to speak badly of him. Yes, we do have a royal family but it's popularity is hardly anything compared to that of King Bhumibol, at least not in Britain. People hang framed portraits of him in their homes and shop fronts. There are endless statues, ornaments and calendars you can buy with his image. He's like an Asian pope. And his link with Buddhism, he trained as a monk and performs in Buddhist rituals and celebrations frequently, only increases his strength as a figurehead and is seen as a role model for all young Thais. When we grab a couple of hours retreat from the heat of the street and catch a film at one of the cinemas, we are in amazement at how diligently everyone in the auditorium stands quietly as the national anthem is played along to nauseating images of the King helping children in need. He is in fact portrayed as a god who brings the rain for the new season of rice growing. We feel strange standing up too and may have opted out of this ritual in another country but the feeling of love for this King we've experienced here has made us unwilling to rebel. And this brings me back to my reasoning for that open faced smile. Althougb patronage of the King and constitution may not be to everyone's tastes it seems that here in Thailand it brings great joy to a lot of people and they are very proud and honoured to be ruled by him. This and their calm, thoughful ways, most possibly gained from practising the teachings of the Buddha (karma etc.), make them come across as very happy people. Just wait til we get to China. It might not be quite the same there!

more photos from Phang nga Bay

stunning bay on James Bond Island/ huge stalagmites on adjacent bay

Phang nga Bay (James Bond Island) 15.02.10

Phang nga Bay is a national park round the coastline from Phuket Province, which comprises many small islands made of karst limestone. It's a very dramatic place because of the striking shapes of the craggy islands dominating the horizon in every direction. It's nice to be out on a boat and looking back to shorelines which aren't covered in development. The area is protected so there is only mangrove and rainforest greenery, no towns or villages. Our tour for the day comprises three trips off the main ferry boat by guided canoe to get closer to the impressive islands and cave scenery.

We are paddled by our guide through a cave tunnel at the bottom of a huge monolith of limestone, which is called Ko Hong, and into a secret sea lagoon in the middle of the island, invisible from the outside. We have to lie flat as we sail through the cave because the stalagmites and barnacle encrusted rocks are very close to our heads. If the tidal level had increased any more we wouldn't have been able to get out. In the middle of the secret lagoon, which was surrounded on all sides by steep, craggy walls, mangrove trees were growing, splaying out their interesting roots into the muddy waters.

It was a magical place- well, it would've been more so, if there hadn't been a traffic jam of kayaks ferrying tourists in and out again. Hey ho, we're getting used to it. It was very impressive to see how the sea water had eaten away at the bases of these giant cliffs and how huge stalagmites had formed in the vacated space, dripping down forming odd rock mutations. The whole area was formed from the remains of ancient sea coral and the calcium carbonate skeletons of mollusca and other sea creatures, similar to the limestone caves of Waitomo (New Zealand). The rock was pressurised under great earth movements and pushed up and pulled down to create a dramatic scene. The highlight of our tour through the bay is a visit to Ko Khao Phing Kan, otherwise known as James Bond Island because it was used as the setting for The Man with the Golden Gun with Roger Moore when he comes to the Orient in search of the villian Scaramanga. The single sheer rock in the island's opposite bay is where the secret weaponwas hidden. It certainly is a stunning location. Overhanging cliff faces with giant stalagmites hanging from them and a gigantic split in the rockface are dramatic examples of extreme geological formations. Love it! On our way back to port we enjoy watching the sun setting over the pretty islands. Hopefully we'll be able to sleep a little on the night bus we've booked to take us to the bright lights of Bangkok.

snorkelling photos from Koh Phi Phi

clown fish on it's anemone/ large blue clam and a cheeky fish that got in the way

guess who?

butterfly fish/ type of sea coral

Koh Phi Phi 11.02.10 - 13.02.10

longtails on Koh Phi Phi main beach
Once we arrived in Phuket Town after an eight hour bus ride and one hour speedboat transfer from Lipe we decided to make one last island stop before journeying up to Bangkok. We decided to head for the jewel in the Andaman Sea, Koh Phi Phi. Our expectations were high because we'd read how spectacular it was and we weren't disappointed by the island itself, just the numbers of people. Being Chinese New Year holiday probably had something to do with it but when we arrived on the pier to be greeted by a full on tourist town hoaching with people we were a little put off. Not quite the island paradise we'd hoped for. There are some more isolated beaches on Phi Phi's rugged coastline which can only be reached by boat but the main two, Tonsai and Lau Dalam are crowded with longtail boats, bars, restaurants and hotel complexes. Having just come from Lipe where the development is much less, and the physical size of the island is much less, this is a bit of a shock to the system. Although prices on this island are skyhigh, it's a package holiday haven and the majority of consumers here are tourists on holiday, not backpackers. Having said all this, there is a definite reason this place is popular. It's limestone karst scenery is the most spectacular we've come across so far, with huge cliffs dripping stalagmites and boulders protruding straight out te turquoise sea. Koh Phi Phi Ley, it's sister island, is where they shot 'The Beach' and it's an impressive arrangement of steep crags and hidden bays worthy of anyone's idea of a remote getaway. On our second day we take a day's snorkelling boat trip, stopping at Maya Bay (from The Beach) on Phi Phi Ley, Bamboo Island, Mosquito Island and Shark Point and finishing up watching the sun set off Tonsai Bay.

one of the striking islands on our snorkelling trip

On our 5km journey on longtail across to Phi Phi Ley the island beckons us with it's soaring cliffs and shallow turquoise seas but when we turn into Maya Bay we are greeted with a depressing sight. The tranquil setting portrayed in the film is replaced by an overcrowded beach and a constant drone of boats echoing round the enclosed bay.

It's very difficult to imagine the place without the thousands of daytrippers so we give up and float on our backs in the water, trying to drown out the noise. Our next point of call is not so disappointing. Although we still have to dodge the incoming speedboats while swimming in the next bay there are no beaches here so there aren't the crowds.

It's almost possible to swim towards the cliff faces and pretend you're the only one there. The waters in these secluded bays house expansive coral reefs with great snorkelling and diving and we enjoy especially snorkelling off Mosquito Island, because the shoals of stripey yellow and black fish, little swordfish and tiny white bait are choosing to swim closer to the surface and therefore all round us. The water's also filled with strands of plankton floating up and down, which look like clear worms and several clear jellyfish. We enjoy the experience underwater but the day is marred by the witnessing of several acts of destruction to the coral. Firstly, other snorkellers seem to see no problem with standing on top of the coral, destroying an organism which has taken over 300 years to form. Secondly, the longtail boatmen we are being ferried by, insist on putting down a large metal anchor directly into the reef, damaging it irreparably. We are informed by a boat captain from a neighbouring ship that he's been touring the reef for over twenty years and has laid ropes for the longtails to anchor to but they keep on dropping their anchors nevertheless. Thirdly we witness tourists purposefully removing live coral from off the shore to use as an ornament in their homes. Hopefully they'll get caught as they go through customs, as it's illegal to take it out of the country. As we ponder these issues we come to the conclusion, tourism is a curse here. It causes the destruction. If people didn't want to come out here, the tourist boats wouldn't destroy the reef. With the mediterranean destinations of Greece, Italy and even Spain becoming more expensive with the advent of the euro, people are obviously choosing farther afield holidays where the flight may be expensive but the day to day expenses are a fraction of Europe's.


longtails on Sunrise beach/ on our way back to our chalet

a little puppet livening up one of the laid back restaurants on Walking Street

Koh Lipe (3km long) 04.02.10 - 08.02.10

Koh Lipe is the first Thai island on the way north out of Malaysia and it's our first taste of paradise with clear, turquoise waters and soft white sand. We arrive by speedboat from Langkawi with our passports being taken by one of the crew who has them all stamped and checked for us- very easy. A longtail* boat ferries us from the speedboat platform to the shore where we hop off into the knee deep water and collect our bags to cross the island to our resort. Lipe has one concrete street called 'Walking Street' and it has been constructed purely for tourists as it's lined with eating places, Thai massage parlours, snorkelling and dive shops and souvenier stalls. It's also a means for the large number of scooters to cross the island- there are no cars here, but the locals all drive little mopeds. It takes only ten minutes walkingto cross the island and we find our resort on the opposite beach, Sunrise beach. There are less longtails moored up on this beach so it's quieter than Pattaya beach, where we docked on the speedboat. We waste no time in getting into the sea for a cooling swim and spend most of the rest of the day sitting out under the shade of the trees reading up about Thailand. We do make the decision to train for our PADI open water diving certificate and book into Forra Dive resort to begin our course the next day. It takes us three days to become proficient enough to pass with loads of theory to learn and an exam and four open water dives out in the Andaman Sea to get us accustomed to using the equipment and being confident with all the procedures. Diving can be a daunting activity because of the very nature of breathing underwater. It's a foreign concept to us humans and it takes a bit of getting used to, including the difference in pressure under metres of liquid. The gear itself weighs a tonne out of water but as soon as you descend into the depths it becomes light as a feather and you float weightless, as if in space. Regis, our French dive instructor, was keen for us to practise our ascent procedures, coming up slowly so as not to get decompression sickness or nitrogen narcosis, including an ascent technique where, if you're out of air, you use your buddy's alternate air source to breathe from- scary stuff. It's definitely worth learning though because the underwater coral reefs are stunning environments. On our last dive of the course we'd completed all our skills training and were able to simply follow Regis on a tour of the reef, off the shores of Ko Adang, a neighbouring island to Koh Lipe and part of the Ko Tarutao National Marine Park. The coral was beautiful with banks of bright fuschia pink and purple varieties interspersed with intense blue and pink anemones and orange branch-like formations. We saw a huge bright blue crown of thorns starfish and big clam shells gently opening and closing. The fish weren't half bad either and included a yellow box fish, grey puffer, numerous butterfly, parrot and angel fish, two lion fish (which were beautiful with their long red and white tendrils) a stone fish and several ominous moray eels, their big heads poking out of holes in the rock.

*Longtails are so called because of their long propellor shaft which connects to a loud, clanging motor on the back. They are the preferred means of transport on Lipe and can be hired like taxis to take you to any beach or other island.