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Buddha’s Giant Feet at Wat Pho

Every visit to Bangkok feels like I’m here for the first time.
-Andrew Zimmern, Bizarre Foods

Sometimes you encounter a sight–it may even be considered a tourist trap to some–that leaves you in awe. In some cases, you’re prepared for the beauty of a destination as you’ve perused the guidebooks and checked out photos online. Other times you’re simply struck by the sight because you didn’t know what to expect. And other times, the sight exceeds the expectations set by those who introduced it to you.Wat Pho

My stop at Wat Pho in Bangkok was the latter of those experiences. I had read a bit about it and heard from friends who had been there before me. But I wasn’t prepared for the sight of the largest reclining Buddha in Bangkok.

Wat Pho is one of the more important temples in Bangkok, and therefore in Thailand. It’s also a major tourist attraction, which means that it is surrounded by hawkers and scammers (“The temple is closed today because [insert excuse]”). Ignoring the people along the route to see the three major sights of Wat Pho, the Grand Palace, and Wat Arun, I stopped first at Wat Pho–coming from the area around Khao San Road makes this the easiest first stop. Wat Pho Buddha

While one of Bangkok’s oldest temples is a sight to behold for its grandeur–it is a royal temple afterall–it’s the Buddha that attracts so many visitors. The reclining Buddha and the temple that surrounds it were built by Rama III in 1832, although the original parts of the temple complex were supposedly built during the reign of King Phetracha in 1688–1703.Reclining Buddha

There was nothing more inspiring than looking at the enormous feet of the reclining Buddha, inlaid with Buddha images in mother of pearl. It’s almost impossible to even take a photo of the entire Buddha (I wish I had had a panoramic camera at the time). Of all the temples I visited in Thailand, I took the fewest photos of Wat Pho. That doesn’t mean, however, that I found the temple less interesting than others–sometimes you have to step away from the lens to appreciate what you see. Much like the Giant Buddha of Leshan, it’s difficult to fully portray the experience of being there.Buddha feet

The reclining Buddha is 15 meters high and 46 meters long. The feet are 3 meters high and 4.5 meters long–not quite the size of the feet of the Giant Buddha of Leshan, but still impressive.

Have you visited Wat Pho? Did it meet or exceed your expectations?

Opening Doors to Travel

As some of my friends know, I’ve been trying to plan a getaway to Asia. The continent isn’t my first travel choice–there are other continents that I haven’t visited before. However, my current job is on east Asian hours, so this is the logical choice (fortunately, my boss doesn’t mind if I don’t live in the New York area). Now I’m looking through the doors to see all my options.

That's a lot of doorways

That’s a lot of doorways

Most of the time, I enjoy where I live–it’s fairly quiet and comfortable; sometimes this downtown area feels like a big small town. But after four years here, I’m about ready to move on, possibly taking up a vagabond lifestyle for a while. I can’t say I’ve ever lived out of a suitcase (well, maybe that semester in London would be close), but I wouldn’t mind doing so for a while.

Maybe I should step out of the temple

Maybe I should step out of the temple

Nothing is set yet. I could be gone a short time, or it might turn into permanent travels. I haven’t even decided where my first stop will be; I only know that I will have internet access so I can keep my job. The uncertainty that comes with long-term travel is exhilarating–anxiety of not knowing what’s next is beautiful and freeing. Organized chaos has always fascinated me, which is probably why I sometimes enjoyed watching traffic in China from a distance (I only hated it when I was in the middle of it).

At this stage, I’m open to suggestions for destinations or resources for finding short-term housing.

Guarding the Journey

I admit it, I’m terrible at making travel plans. Between searching for alternatives and second-guessing my choices, I miss out on some deals and end up paying more than I really should. It’s why I’ll be taking the bus instead of the train to Boston in a couple weeks.

One of the grand statues at Wat Phra Kaeo and the Grand Palace in Bangkok

One of the grand statues at Wat Phra Kaeo and the Grand Palace in Bangkok

I’m planning ahead for the fall because I don’t want to miss out again. Working from home has its advantages (even if I don’t work normal hours like everyone else around here), and I plan on getting back out to Asia sometime in the fall–I’ll get to be a short-term expat this time around. I still haven’t decided where, but toward the top of the list is Thailand. Part of the reason I’d like to head back to Thailand is that it’s easy to get around, inexpensive, and there isn’t as much Internet censorship as there is in some countries (cough, cough China). But wherever I go, I’m sure the NSA will be following everything I do.

I hope the temple guards in Thailand are on my side if I end up there.

Happy Birthday, Buddha

In case you didn’t know, today is Buddha’s birthday. Of course, it’s not always May 17 because his birthday follows the lunar calendar. Many countries in Southeast Asia celebrate this day as a national holiday.

I’m really not sure what one is supposed to do to celebrate Buddha’s birthday, but I figure this photo is appropriate.Buddha_head

Buddha’s head with a bodhi tree growing around it at Wat Phra Mahthat in Ayutthaya, Thailand.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Because it’s Mother’s Day, I think this picture from Thailand belongs here, even though I can’t explain it. I figure my mom will at least get a laugh out of it.

Not quite a tiger mom

Not quite a tiger mom

My mother has encouraged my travels (and other endeavors), even if she doesn’t quite understand why I make my travel choices. It’s an appropriate time to thank her for all the encouragement.

A Ride with Mr. Beer

DoiSuthepRdIt was our second day in Chiang Mai and we wanted to try something different. We spent the previous night discussing our plans—checking through Lonely Planet and the tourist maps. We decided to rent a motorbike and ride up to Doi Suthep. It sounded like a beautiful day trip with the royal palace, temples, and the mountain summit views.

I was a little weary of renting a motorbike in Thailand—driving didn’t seem all that safe. And I hadn’t driven a car in more than a year and a half, or been on a bicycle for more than 20 minutes in two years. But, this option was significantly cheaper than taking a taxi or the tuk-tuk–I was also informed by hotel staff that it would be difficult to find a taxi or tuk-tuk for the ride back without pre-arranging a pickup.doisutheproadside

The Sumit Hotel rented automatic motorbikes (more like a scooter with a lawnmower engine) for 200 baht per day. While waiting in the hotel lobby for the bike, I asked the travel agent for directions to ensure I didn’t get lost. The bike arrived, looking in fairly good condition but without any gas. I was told to fill up the tank for about 70 Baht–I was even directed to the nearest gas station on the way toward Doi Suthep.

As I sat on the bike, I noticed the receipt with the company name: Mr. Beer. This is supposed to be one of the major suppliers of motorbikes in Chiang Mai. I doubt that anyone in the US could get away with such a company name.

It was a fairly easy ride to the gas station, although I was a bit nervous navigating the lanes of traffic without getting hit by a car. It didn’t help that traffic runs the British way in Thailand.

The tank was filled and I checked the map to ensure the directions were still correct (I couldn’t rely on street signs as they are mostly non-existent). The bike sped up the diagonal highway to the zoo and then further along to the mountain of Doi Suthep and the views of Chiang Mai.

The lush gardens at the palace at Doi Suthep

The lush gardens at the palace at Doi Suthep

Once out of the city of Chiang Mai, it’s a beautiful ride—peaceful and quiet save for the lawnmower engine noise. The traffic is light during much of the day. There are plenty of turn-offs from the road to rest, have a snack, or take in the mountain views.chiangmaipalacefountain

We passed Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep and continued on our way, deciding to stop at the temple on the way down the mountain. The first stop was the royal palace. Parts of the palace were closed due to a royal visit, but there was still plenty to see in the vast gardens. As we walked to the reservoir, I thought I might be entering a James Bond movie set with the fountains spinning to classical music.

Hill Tribe Village at Doi Suthep

Hill Tribe Village at Doi Suthep

After a short break for a light lunch, we were on our way to the Hmong Hill Tribe village before continuing to the summit. We quickly discovered that the village was a waste of time—it was nothing more than metal shacks set up as tourist-trap shops selling the same souvenirs as the Chiang Mai night bazaar. As we rode further up the mountain we came to a gate with a fork in the road. The park officer spoke no English and couldn’t answer any questions. It appeared that the road to the summit was closed and the road toward the campsites was being paved. Slightly disappointed, we headed back down the mountain to the wat.

A lot of stairs to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep

A lot of stairs to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep

There was quite a crowd in the afternoon at Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep.  The serpents greet the visitors along the stairway up to the gate—at which point all foreigners must pay admission. After seeing so many watsuthepStupatemples in Bangkok, Ayutthaya, and Chiang Mai, most of the sights become repetitive. However, looking out into the mountains and over the city is well worth the time to enter this one.

As we coasted down the mountain with the engine off, I spotted a side road and decided to take a look. Down this road was a small temple, Wat Si Su Dat. This temple is home to many monks of the Miao minority (who share the same ancestry as the Miao minority of China). The purpose of the temple is to teach the young monks about social work so that they can return to their villages to teach. As with many other small temples, there was a monk who spoke English and explained much of the history and importance. The monks were eager to speak with us as few tourists ever stop by.

We left Doi Suthep feeling that we had a relaxing day in the mountains. Unfortunately, I had forgotten where to turn to get back inside the city walls of Chiang Mai. By some miracle, I had managed to the street that headed toward the hotel.

Entrance to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep

Entrance to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep

I returned Mr. Beer’s motorbike with about 3/4 of a tank of gas. I quickly understood why the rental was so cheap–the company makes money from siphoning off the excess gas. I didn’t feel bad about returning the bike early or with excess gas; there’s nothing like the feeling of speeding along the Thai roads at 20 mph.

Train Travel Adventures

panama_canal_railwayAfter reading Unbrave Girl’s list of why she loves taking trains in the US, I thought about my own experiences on trains. As much as I like taking trains, they’re not exactly convenient or reasonably priced in the US.

I didn’t take a train (that I actually remember) until I was in high school and wanted to see a concert at Madison Square Garden. It was easy enough to take NJ Transit to Penn Station, but it was a bit difficult to get to and from the station–there really wasn’t any public transportation to get to the station. I took that train a few times, and it unfortunately stopped running just before midnight.

Other than the PATH between Jersey City and Manhattan, I didn’t take another train trip until my first year in China. At the end of my first Spring Festival holiday, I took an overnight train from Shanghai to Shenzhen. It wasn’t unpleasant; there was enough space in the room with the other passengers, but it was rather boring for 24 hours. After the first couple hours, I didn’t want to go anywhere near the bathroom.

I would recommend an overnight train in China as long as you’re with someone else to help keep track of your luggage. It’s also important to stock up on food and drinks to avoid price gouging.

Bangkok Railway Station

Bangkok Railway Station

The only other train trip I took in China was with my parents between Beijing and Tianjin. We took the high-speed train on the way back, which only shaved about 15 minutes off the already short trip, but it was a more comfortable train. The more modern trains in China are definitely worth riding–it’s nice to see what the US doesn’t have (although I’ve heard plans for a high-speed rail network for the last 20 years).

railway-bangkokMy second train adventure in Asia was in Thailand. The first trip I took was a short one to Ayutthaya–only about 45 minutes from Bangkok. I quickly learned that Thailand’s trains are always late, and there are no announcements. The other trip in Thailand was an overnight train to Chiang Mai–I had a top bunk that was not large enough for me (and I’m 5’10”), and had constant overhead light. Same as the overnight train in China, this one had a rather disgusting toilet after a few hours–and I could watch the tracks through the hole in the floor.

Ayutthaya's train station is a little underdeveloped

Ayutthaya’s train station is a little underdeveloped

The overnight train back to Bangkok was more of an adventure. After waiting for more than 45 minutes for the late train, I decided to inquire as to its whereabouts. I’m not 100% certain, but I swear I heard the woman at the ticket booth say, “It fell off the track.” It took me a while to figure out the next move. I ended up exchanging my ticket for a regular train that did not have beds but departed in another two hours. It gave me time to sit outside the 7-11 across the street and eat grilled chicken from the street vendor.

My final train trip was on Amtrak during the summer of 2011. I decided to take a three-day weekend in Montreal. The ticket cost about as much as it would to drive, but I wouldn’t have to pay for parking. The drive would take about five or six hours, but the train took at least 11 hours.

It is a scenic train ride through upstate New York, but it isn’t as pleasant knowing that the train is traveling at about 20 mph. Worst of all was that we were stopped for a half hour by US customs on our way out of the US. We were stopped for almost two hours on way back into the US.

View from the train in upstate New York

View from the train in upstate New York

For the convenience of arriving five or six hours earlier, I would happily drive to Montreal next time and pay for parking.

There’s a chance I’ll take another Amtrak trip to Washington and/or Boston this spring. I just hope it doesn’t take longer than driving.

Respectable Clowns

A clown can surprise you sometimes. In my first year and a half in China, my colleagues and I compared ourselves to clowns (or dancing monkeys in some cases) because that’s how we felt about our jobs. As foreign English teachers in China, we were entertainment rather than educators, and our evaluations reinforced that point. I was fortunate enough to move on and teach at institutions that valued my expertise.bangkok-mcdonald

In Bangkok, I found a clown that showed respect. And when that clown is the face of an multi-billion-dollar international corporation, he also commands respect. Ronald McDonald is much more respectable clown in other countries than he is in the US. This clown had to be more respectful because he was standing a short walk away from the Erawan Shrine.

Contemplating Ayutthaya

After walking across the train tracks in Ayutthaya, I waited for the boat to take the group across the river into the ancient capital of Thailand. It wasn’t a wide river, but it was the easiest way across as no one knew how to get to the bridge.Ayutthaya pier

I find this photo rather calming, almost contemplative. I can stare at the picture and ponder the great questions of life as I sip my chocolate macadamia nut coffee from Corrado’s in Clifton, NJ (how could I pass up two pounds of this coffee for $6?).

This was a great introduction to Aytthaya–calmly waiting on the river to see Buddhist relics. Unfortunately, there were too many people on the pier for meditation.

Chatting with Monks

chediluangMy companion and I walked around Chiang Mai on the first day off the overnight train from Bangkok. We were a little tired from the disrupted sleep of the previous evening, but excited to wander the streets of this northern Thai city.

We stopped at numerous wats inside the city walls—many more than were on the tourist map. We had our plan to see three major wats and the Arts & Cultural Center, but were sidetracked by other fascinations that included a conversation and fruit shake with a friendly American/Chinese couple.

It was at the second wat that we intended to visit (it was supposed to be the third, but we got lost a few times) that we met Plai. Plai was our friendly and talkative monk at Wat Chediluang whose name means “forest.”

On our way to the exit of the temple walls we encountered a sign for Monk Chat. We were interested in what it could possibly be and curious if they spoke our languages. There were a few tables with monks chatting with tourists. The first table had two empty seats on either side of the monk. He waved us over and asked us, in English, to sit and talk.

Plai, the monk who chatted with tourists

Plai, the monk who chatted with tourists

The idea of Monk Chat is to educate tourists about Buddhism, Thai culture, and the history of Chediluang. Keeping with the tradition, we asked questions about the 600-year-old temple that was badly damaged in an earthquake centuries ago.

We weren’t as interested in the temple as we were in Plai’s language skills. I was impressed that he spoke English so well. He explained that Thai has mostly the same sounds as English, so students can write most English words using the Thai alphabet. He was curious when I told him about my writing—he asked for my website (one that is now defunct) so that he might visit it and read my work in the future. He even wrote his e-mail address in my notepad and asked me to send any stories about my journey through Thailand.

We also discussed his five years as a monk at the wat. He spoke of how difficult it was to keep the traditions of Buddhism. He provided examples of the changing world and technology—if technology can only help you then it is not useful, but if it can help many people then it should be used. His personal example was an electronic recorder that he used to record the sounds of Chinese in the order that my companion wrote them in his notebook in Pinyin. He hoped that this would assist him in further learning Chinese and teaching other monks at Chediluang.

As the sun set, we departed Wat Chediluang in search of our final wat before dinner.

Party Crashing

It was a pleasant coincidence that I booked my trip to Halifax during Canada Day celebrations. I also visited Montreal last year during a fireworks festival that I discovered while searching for things to add to my itinerary. Sometimes celebrations are more of a surprise on trips. queenbirthday

In 2008, I went with my parents for a few days in Bangkok. I convinced them to meet in Malaysia, but they also wanted at least a short trip to Thailand. When we arrived in Bangkok, we discovered that it was Queen Sirikit’s 76th birthday. We had no idea we’d be in Thailand for a celebration like that, and we were pleasantly surprised.

Has anyone else traveled to country only to find themselves in the midst of a national celebration?

In Ancient Capitals

The best vacation day trip I’ve ever taken was to Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Thailand that was destroyed by the Burmese in 1767. Today, most of the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with tourists heading to the ruins of the temples and the Khmer-style architecture that remains.

ayutthayaIt was a short train ride from Bangkok with unreserved seats, which meant that anyone traveling further along the line could force me stand (at least I had a seat on the way back). Ayutthaya would have been more enjoyable had I rented a bike or elephant. It also would have been worthwhile to spend the night in the quiet city.

Sunset Temple

This title isn’t quite correct. While my photo may be of a sunset over Wat Arun in Bangkok, it is known as the Temple of Dawn (I just don’t wake up early enough to catch sunrises).watarun

This Khmer-style temple across the Chao Praya River from the Grand Palace is my favorite tourist destination in Bangkok. There is a lot to enjoy in the city, but there’s something special about a clear day at Wat Arun. I probably have more photos of this temple than of any other destination in Thailand.

This photo was taken during my second trip to Bangkok, after briefly and accidentally entering Thailand illegally.

In an Octopus’ Garden

We’ve had a few dreary days here. Fortunately, I started replanting my garden when we had those beautiful summer-like days. I still need to figure out what to plant in a few other pots, but I’m pretty well set so far. There’s not a lot of space here, but it’s enough for herbs and such (I’m quite the urban farmer).

With the clouds blocking the sun and the temperatures plummeting, I’ve resorted to staring at sunny garden pictures from my travels–some days they can be quite uplifting (like the one from Bali in the previous post).

Gardens at Muzium Budaya in Malacca, Malaysia

Gardens at Muzium Budaya in Malacca, Malaysia

Many of these photos in my albums remind me of quiet walks in cities. For some reason, these are the least traveled tourist destinations–or maybe I just have the pleasure of visiting when no one else is around.

Of course, exotic gardens are much more exciting than my peppers and basil. There are numerous occasions that I’ve come across plants that I can’t identify, and sometimes those plants are edible (although I still don’t know what those flowers in Fujian province are).

Not quite a garden, more of a farm in Fujian province.

Not quite a garden, more of a farm in Fujian province.

And nothing beats visiting a royal garden like the one at Doi Suthep outside Chiang Mai. I may not be all that interested in flowers, but it’s still amazing to see the variety of roses on the grounds that are almost the size of my head. It also doesn’t hurt that the walk through the garden was quiet after a motorbike ride up the mountain toward Wat Prathat Doi Suthep.


Warding off Solicitors

I visited numerous temples in Thailand–so many that I can’t remember them all. I had a few tourist maps that I picked up at the airport and hotel lobbies, each with different wats labelled throughout Bangkok. For the first few days I stopped at almost every one I passed. After awhile it took effort to locate a feature of each temple that made it stand out.Door

At one temple, I noticed this ornate door. Unlike others I saw, the guard depicted on the door had some gruesome black paint on it. When I asked about it, I was told it wasn’t paint, but rather coffee used to make the guard more fierce to help ward off evil spirits.