Wat Ku Tao

I know what you’re all thinking: Another picture of a stupa?

Yes, but this one’s for the architecture freaks out there (including myself). I love my exotic buildings, so when I caught a glimpse of my first real example of a Thai Lü inspired stupa, I insisted it go on the blog.

Such temples are more commonly found around Xixuangbanna in southern Yunnan. But for those who don’t have time for the epic trip across mountainous Laos to southern China, this little gem is a great introduction to a little known culture.

Wat Ku Tao, which roughly translates as “the temple with the watermelon stupa,” is a great example of the very unique stacked-sphere design used around Xixuangbanna. Apparently, Thai traders thought the style was fun, so they decided Chiang Mai needed one – with an appropriately comical name, of course.

In a town which boast nearly 300 similarly styled temples, this curvaceous specimen definitely stands out.

Thailand’s Posing Tribal Children

While visiting Wat Phra Tat Doi Suthep north of Chiang Mai, we discovered a relatively large number of very young Akha and Miao children who had been dressed up and strategically positioned around the monument to make some not-so-quick cash off Thais and foreigners alike.

Well-intentioned tourists will often snap some cute pictures of the kids and hand them some Baht without really asking themselves some basic questions: How long has this tiny child been forced to sit here? Has this child been pulled out of school to beg for money because the parents value quick cash over education? Why is the parent not sitting here dressed up in “traditional clothing” rather than the child? Am I indirectly contributing to the cultural marginalization of minority children by teaching them that begging is a sustainable lifestyle?

Yes, many minority groups around the world lack education and real opportunities for work, and as we mentioned in our Paduang post in Myanmar, sometimes the commercialization of “traditional culture” may be the only real survival strategy. But it’s worth taking a second to reflect a little on how these kids are being treated before rushing to snap some cute pictures.

The shot above was taken from a distance while a young Akha girl was trying to convince a tourist to cash up. We chose not to participate in this particular cash-for-photo scheme.

Saturday and Sunday Walking Streets

When it comes to street markets, Thomas and I are experts. From Lhasa to Chichicastenango, from Antananarivo to Santa Fe, we’ve seen them (and enjoyed them) all. So when we say that Chiang Mai’s Saturday and Sunday Walking Streets are good, it actually means something.

Thailand excels at open markets and we’ve sampled many of them including night markets in Satun, Trang, Krabi, Had Yai, Sukhothai, Chiang Rai as well as half a dozen in Bangkok. We’ve gushed about Chatuchak and Taling Chan. Even in a country where the street market is a highly developed art form, the sprawling Saturday and Sunday Walking Streets stand out.

You want it, they’ve got it: metallic alien statues, hill tribe pants, boot-leg CDs and DVDs, Coca Cola art, cell phones, fake Akha head dresses, posters of monks in exotic poses, sexually explicit Continue…

Striking Gold in Chiang Mai

Statue at Wat Phra Singh

There’s a very distinct color coordination effort going on in much of Thailand’s religious architecture, and it’s, perhaps, most noticeable in the compact back alleys of Chiang Mai. The old town is packed with stunning golden temples with gilded statues, chedis, and latticework as well as gold-infused temple murals and column art. This is just a VERY small sample of the Buddhist bling the ancient town has to offer visitors. The pilgrims are literally walking into the temples and pressing Continue…

Mappinglife.org’s Map of Life

We’ve already mentioned this on our Facebook Fanpage, but recent discoveries mean this is definitely blog material.

Mappinglife.org’s Map of Life is an amazing new resource which seeks to integrate species distribution information into that wonderfully recognizable Google Maps interface. You search for an animal, and a magical little overlay shows you where it lives. Visitors to the site can already search for terrestrial vertebrates and limited fish species using both scientific and common names.

The goal is to make the open-source project a Wikipedia-like resource which allows researchers and citizen contributors to help refine and expand upon the content. Nature.com details the development and goals of the project in this recent post.

I immediately fell in love with the Map of Life and only later discovered that one of the creators of the site was an old friend of mine from high school, Robert Guralnick. What a kick! We can’t wait for more additions to the database including plant and select invertebrate species, which should be added later this year. (I’m keeping my fingers crossed for salt-water fish and birds. And dare I wish for nudibranchs?)

Wat Si Chum 360 View

Perhaps the most spectacular site in Sukhothai is the enormous Buddha in the ruins of Wat Si Chum. The Buddha’s stunningly elongated fingers are one of the most photographed things in Thailand. (There’s a picture of Thomas in the typical pose in our previous mini-pictorial.) To share this amazing location with everyone, we’ve put up a 360 panorama, so whirl around to your heart’s content.

By the way, I should mention that photographing this site without people in the picture – something which is necessary to make a 360 in such an enclosed space – was no easy task. Thomas is right outside convincing the hordes to stand back while I hurriedly snap away.

Sukhothai Historical Park

While there may be some debate among historians, Sukhothai is generally considered the birthplace of Thai culture. The sprawling Sukhothai Historical Park preserves what’s left of the first capital of Siam and makes for a leisurely day out biking through the ruins. The site features a series of crumbling monasteries, temples, stupas, palaces, and stunning Buddha statues as well as portions of the original city fortifications.

While not on the same scale as the Southeast Asian super-monuments of Bagan and Angkor Wat, Sukhothai is still quite impressive and rivals the grandeur of Ayutthaya. For its historical and cultural significance, Sukhothai has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it’s definitely worth a day or two on the way north to Chiang Mai.

As with Ayutthaya, the Thai government has been playing around with ticketing and ended up with a rather absurd and impractical zone system. To make the situation worse, the current government has eliminated the combined ticket which requires visitors to buy individual tickets for each zone. Because the majority of the best preserved monuments are in the core zone, most visitors limit themselves to that single ticket. Despite the bureaucratic missteps, Sukhothai represents one of Thailand’s architectural and historical highlights.

The Tallest Buddhist Stupa

The Phra Pathom Chedi in Nakhon Pathom, Thailand is the tallest Buddhist stupa in the world. At 127 metres (417 ft), it’s taller than any stupa, dagobah, chedi, candi, chorten, pagoda or monastic complex anywhere. So how does it measure up to other religious buildings?

Not too bad for a chedi built in the 19th century, but it’s significantly shorter than the minaret at the Hassan II Mosque (210 m /689 ft) in Casablanca, Morocco, which claims the title of the world’s tallest religious monument. It’s also quite a bit shorter than the Ulm Minster (161.5 m /530 ft), which will hold the record for the world’s tallest church until La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is completed. To be fair, the Phra Pathom Chedi predates both buildings.

No, Buddhists worry less about the height of their buildings and more about the height of their Buddhas. The tallest Buddhist monument in the world is now the recently constructed Spring Temple Buddha in Lushan, China. The Chinese constructed it exactly one meter taller than the Phra Pathom Chedi to claim the record. In fact, the three tallest statues in the world are Buddhas, including the Laykyun Setkyar, which we visited in Monywa, Myanmar.

So what would Buddha think about all this? Somehow, I strongly suspect he wouldn’t care at all. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if Continue…

Another Day in Wonderland

During our travels, I find myself constantly making references to Alice in Wonderland. I think one of the hardest things to convey to family, friends and readers is the disorienting cumulative effect of living in a surrealistic landscape of shifting cultural and environmental norms. Every day is another page in a nonsensical narrative with characters speaking backwards, bombarding us with riddles and inverted logic. Even a simple trip to Seven Eleven can be an excursion into the bizarre. And for some reason, I suddenly seemed to notice it.

I was on a mission to buy potato chips. I always have the same options, but at that particular moment in time they seemed odd: seaweed, grilled lobster, hot and spicy crab, hot chili squid…

Can’t I just have BBQ or nacho cheese?!

A single bag of “Salt and Sour” chips drew my attention; unfortunately, “salt and sour” were the only English words on the bag. As always, I analysed the bag’s pictures for clues. A bottle of vinegar, a lemon, what looked like a glass of orange juice, and a pile of rice. Hmmm. Well, at least it didn’t appear to contain any sea life.

Stepping out of the Seven Eleven, the everyday atmosphere seemed noticeably strange. A group of Nigerian gigalos Continue…