An unexpected temple

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Wat Rong Khun – The White Temple

Wat Rong Kun or The White Temple is a free, must-see location on a visit to Chiang Rai in Northern Thailand. Stunning, startling and unique. This modern Buddhist temple takes tradition and injects it with contemporary design and powerful statements on the state of our society and culture through the use of art. Re-built after falling into disrepair by an artist from Chiang Mai, the project will not be completed until 2070!

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I loved it. Bright white plaster shapes and reflective mirror tiles oozed beauty and simplicity. Weaving through the whole design of sculpted bridges and archways were deeper comments about life and death. One of the most striking and thought-provoking areas is inside the main temple where the painted walls lay out a picture of modern day events, issues and well known figures from movies to politics. It showed me the power art has to speak out about injustice, evil, inequality and humour.

Art and its comment on society
Art and its comment on society

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Trekking in Northern Thailand

Trekking in Northern Thailand
Trekking in Northern Thailand

My next challenge was a three day trek into the Thai forest and mountains with a local young guide from the Karen tribe called Mr Quick, who lived up to his name and a small but adventurous group of tourists.

The Karen people are beautiful in spirit and in appearance and we were privileged to visit their small village community in the mountains.

Fellow adventurers
Fellow adventurers

We started out on the back of a pick up truck winding up mountain roads. The group I had joined were an eclectic mix of people, many of whom had met each other on the buses or trains up to Chiang Mai. There was an Irish carpenter,  an Indian medical researcher from Texas, a hairdresser from France, a nurse from Scandinavia and a lorry driver from Holland. Our common interest was a sense of adventure and curiosity.

First stop of the trip was elephant riding.

I hadn’t realised this was included in the tour. Elephant riding appears on the surface to be great fun.  Who wouldn’t want to be close to such a wonderful animal? But there is a dark side to this practice that tourism is fuelling.

I had until the day before been totally uneducated about this practice until I glanced at a website about this and began to learn more. Everyone in our group bar myself rode the elephants because they are beautiful animals. However, after the ride they came away questioning what they had done having seen them hit repeatedly with sharp metal hooks.

Elephant spines are not designed to carry the weight of humans and can be seriously damaged especially by the numbers taken on a daily basis. The Asian elephant is also now becoming endangered in the wild due to the illegal capture for tourists. A wild elephant will not allow people to sit on its back. So as a young elephants they have to be forced into submission. Often this is through pain.

This emphasised to me how the decisions we make affect the world for better or worse. It made me question where I spend my money, because it does make a difference.

The site we were heading to was a small village community in the forest. After escaping over the border from Myanmar (formerly Burma) due to fighting with the Burmese army many Karen people settled where they could in the among the trees.

This emphasised to me how the decisions we make affect the world for better or worse. It made me question where I spend my money, because it does make a difference.

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The journey through the forest was eerily quiet. There was no bird song. I asked our guide why. He said the birds and monkeys that used to be there were all gone. Hunted, shot and eaten. This is the tragic reality of much of Asia. Any insect, bird, fish and mammal is seen first and foremost as a potential food source. To demonstrate this, Mr Quick pointed out some large ants. He plucked one off a leaf, pulled off its head between his teeth, ate it and offered us the chance to do the same. A couple of brave trekkers did and said it tasted of lemon. The only other creature we saw was demonstrated by our guide. Pointing out a small hole in the ground, he stuck a stick down and pulled out a huge tarantula-style spider. Holding the arachnid from behind we were told this was a deadly spider. One bite would be enough to kill a person. Everyone in the group at that moment took a large step backwards.

Deadly spider in the Northern Thai forests
Deadly spider in the Northern Thai forests

One bite would be enough to kill a person. Everyone in the group at that moment took a large step backwards.

We arrived at the village at dusk and were provided a with a long, covered wooden platform overlooking the tree tops that had mattresses and mosquito nets. I wanted to get a sense of my surroundings so wandered through the dirt track to see more.

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Karen Village, Northern Thailand

I watched a lady herding mother hens and their chicks into woven basket chicken coops. I saw a man chopping wood. Houses were made of natural materials, often raised up on stilts off the ground. The space beneath had an old pig or a cow tied to the posts.  I wondered how the villagers must feel about our presence there. Due to its remoteness the place had not become commercialised, although when we first arrived we were offered hand made bracelets to buy by the ladies of the community. I also discovered they had just received electricity the previous month, which was already changing people’s habits, they could now get and watch t.v!

Getting the chickens to bed
Evening chicken herding
Curry cooked by fire
Curry cooked by fire

After a delicious meal of curry and rice cooked on a fire, we were treated to the local children singing together around a camp fire. One of our travelling party had also brought some fireworks. After I suggested that setting them up near the fire and a flammable wooden building wasn’t the best idea, the whole village were treated to a sparkling display that they had never seen before and really enjoyed. Luckily I am a good sleeper and I drifted off to the buzz of forest crickets, a spluttering candle and plenty of snoring.

Jungle accomodation
Jungle accommodation

Early morning rays of light woke me before the rest of my fellow trekkers, so I decided to explore village life at the start of the day. I stumbled along, bleary eyed taking in lung fulls of fresh mountain air and blinking at amazing views overlooking the spreading forest. As I wandered through the village I came across a group of South Korean teachers staying with another local family down the road. It didn’t surprise me. Having met so many Koreans on the Camino long distance path in Spain, I knew this nation has a passion for walking, so where else to find them enjoying their time off than in a remote tribal village in Thailand!

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I watched as a Karen household respectfully came out of their home, bowed to an orange-robed monk passing along the dirt track and discretely placed food in a metal bowl he was carrying. This is a tradition across Asia for the Theravada form of Buddhists. Every morning before midday they collect food from the generosity of people and this alone is what they eat for the day.

Bamboo carved hair pins
Bamboo carved hair pins

Our trek for the day took us further into the forest past a waterfall where we cooled our legs and whilst relaxing Mr Quick carved me a bamboo hair pin, a real treasure. We passed a water buffalo and its young calf grazing in a man-made paddy field and saw home made trellises ladden with passion fruit vines.

Passion fruit vines
Passion fruit vines
Water buffalo and its young
Water buffalo and its young

One of our group, a nurse, had been bitten from head to food by some kind of bug during the night and for the whole walk she was scratching and itching. I felt so sorry for her and realised I had a lucky escape as I was on the mattress next to her.

For dinner I learnt how to catch and cook eels dug fresh out from the muddy rice fields. Boiled first, then barbequed.

Catching eels in the rice fields
Catching eels in the rice fields

My job was to catch them as they were thrown through the air still wriggling and place them into a plastic bottle, easier than it looks. The most unusual food item I think I tried on my travels also turned up on the dinner menu in the evening – char-grilled rat! I have to say it tasted pretty unpleasant. I did, however, admire the self-sufficiency of our guide who could survive so well in what would be a hostile environment to most.

BBQ rat for dinner
BBQ rat for dinner

Our home for the night was a simple jungle camp, much cooler than the previous location due to a nearby river. Mr Quick’s Uncle demonstrated his hunting skills by pulling out a musket that they use, complete with gunpowder. He fired a shot which rang through the trees and made me jump.

Gunpowder, treason and plot - the hunting rifle used by in the jungle

The campfire was really welcome in the cold, inky darkness and we all drew together for warmth, laughter and safety and played “guess the band” to music playing on the Texan’s i-pod.

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Our trek sadly ended the following day by balancing on a bamboo raft and being punted down the river, avoiding the river snakes, to the start of our journey. It was an unforgettable experience and an epic adventure.

The end of an unforgettable journey
The end of an unforgettable journey

 

Travellers Tales 4 – Thailand for Christmas

Thai baht with Thai King pictured
Thai baht with Thai King pictured

Bumping along in a minivan on my way to Thailand, I felt myself rapidly going downhill. Arriving at the border crossing office between Cambodia and Thailand things got worse!

There was around an hour long queue to get passports stamped.

In the heat, the strange smell of live animals and rubbish was really overpowering, I stood for a while, then sat on the floor shuffling my large rucksack forward a few inches and at time. When I was half way through the queue I faced a dilemma. Should I leave my place in the line to find a toilet and face holding up my whole group or stay and try with all my might to keep the creamy, Beef stroganoff I ate the night before in my stomach?

The decision, in the end was made for me. I had seconds to react and thankfully the greatest sight before me was a nearby window which I stuck my head out of. Luckily no one was passing by below or they would have had quite a surprise. This was probably one of the physically lowest points of my journey. Being sick, whilst on the move, isn’t fun. I would be forever grateful to the girls guarding the toilets on the Thai side of the border who then let me in without payment when I crossed over. I think they took one look at my face and relented. Also to the South-African family who brought me some plain food when I was laid up in bed that night.

“Being sick, whilst on the move, isn’t fun.”

Driving into Bangkok
Driving into Bangkok

In the blur of my journey I saw how different Thailand is to Cambodia. Expensive cars replaced mopeds. Advertising billboards with modern brands trailed the motorways. Roads were smooth, well tarmaced but also congested with the number of cars. Tall buildings everywhere. The contrast to Cambodia is massive.

I rested up in a plush hotel in Bangkok and felt suprisingly well the following day. This was the end of the organised tour and I said farewell to all my fellow passengers, apart from Dion,  a lawyer from Johannesburg who accompanied me on a day exploring the city.

We caught the local bus and visited Wat Pho temple, which houses a 46m long statue of the reclining Buddha and many beautiful and elaborate stupas. These are mountain like shapes which house the ashes of people or important relics.

Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho
Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho
Stupas, Wat Pho
Stupas, Wat Pho

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I was getting hungry so we headed for street food, which is practically everywhere in Bangkok. The entrepreneurial spirit of Thai people to create delicious, portable food stalls is incredible and I enjoyed freshly squeezed pomegranate juice and Pad Thai.

Portable pizza cookers, Bangkok
Portable pizza cookers, Bangkok

 

“The entrepreneurial spirit of Thai people to create delicious, portable food stalls is incredible.”

Street food seller, Bangkok

Street food stalls, Bangkok
Street food stalls, Bangkok

We took a 3 baht (5p) river boat ride across to Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn and admired the intricate mosaic tiles that adorned the buildings.

Tile Mosaic, Wat Arun
Tile Mosaic, Wat Arun
Wat Arun
Wat Arun – Temple of Dawn, Bangkok
Wat Arun, Temple of Dawn
Wat Arun, Temple of Dawn

 This was followed by a crazy boat ride through the winding Bangkok canals on a super long thin boat with a giant engine.

Bangkok river boat
Bangkok river boat
Huge engine for a tiny boat
Huge engine for a tiny boat
Boat ride through the Bangkok canals
Boat ride through the Bangkok canals

Our journey took us back through Bangkok flower market. This is a vibrant and beautiful place packed with a multitude of shops selling garlands, bouquets and bunches of exotic flowers. I saw sack loads of individual orchid flowers being sold for very low prices. The Thai people really love the beauty of flowers and also use them as offerings when they visit Buddhist temples.

Orchids being sold for 10 baht (20p)
Orchids being sold for 10 baht (20p)
Bangkok flower market
Bangkok flower market

 

The evening held a nice surprise. My friend Tanzeena from the UK had returned from travelling in the Thai islands and we met up for dinner on a roof top over looking the river and city. It was really great to see a familiar face in such an unfamiliar place and catch up on her adventures. We arranged to meet up again in a few days time.

Rooftop view of Bangkok
Rooftop view of Bangkok

The next day was Christmas eve and I headed across the city to meet a Thai family who had connections to my own family and spend a few days with them. After navigating the Bangkok MRT underground system and taxis I was introduced to some new faces and welcomed to their house. It was nice to be part of a family for this time of year and it was a great mix of young and old, Thai and Indian people.

This was the first moment I had to really acknowledge it was Christmas. I had seen lots of decorations in the Philippines and Vietnam, but it felt strange that people were still working and it was super hot and sunny.

I was taken out for an evening meal to a huge, outdoor themed restaurant popular with Chinese tourists called Chocolateville. This is where I saw my first Asian Father Christmas and got covered in fake snow. The young girl in the Thai family and I had a great time.

Asian Father Christmas
Asian Father Christmas
It's snowing
It’s snowing
Snow in Thailand?
Snow in Thailand?

Christmas day was business as usual in Thailand. I enjoyed the lack of pressure to purchase and consume, but I missed my family, my church and the sense of stillness and togetherness that happens in the UK. So, after managing to have a nice chat with my family back home I decided to embrace my location by having a Thai massage. This was a vigorous and unique experience. Firstly you put more clothes on than you take off and the masseuse manipulates your legs and arms to angles I never thought possible! After recovering you do feel great afterwards

Christmas presents in Thailand
Christmas presents

In the evening we did get together as a family and we had a delicious Thai dinner followed by a lucky dip of presents that the young girl had organised for us so she could experience a “real Christmas”. We watched a cheesy but fun Christmas movie and danced to Christmas music salsa style. A very memorable and different Christmas.