Merry Tri-National Christmas

Christmas in Central World, Bangkok

If you are one of those people who complains about how early the Christmas decorations go up each year, Asia is not for you. Starting the day after Halloween (there’s no Thanksgiving here), the Christmas trees started popping up around us in Osaka. The tinsel and the carols followed us to Kyoto. We explored the temples and fall foliage to a sound track of Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer and Jingle Bells. From Japan, we made our way to Taiwan where we discovered crowded German-style Christmas markets filled with bratwurst, gluhwein, pretzels and Chinese dumplings.

Yes, we swayed to Stille Nacht (Silent Night in German) as we stared up at Taipei 101, Asia’s most stunning skyscraper, and basked in the light of fake log fires and a sea of twinkly Christmas lights. From Taiwan, we Continue…

Om Garden Cafe

So what does the adventurous traveler do in the area around Pai? I have absolutely no idea. I’m proud to say that we spent virtually our entire 4-day Pai experience within the relaxing thatched walls of Om Garden Cafe, run by our friends Mark and Anon. (Mark and I go back over two decades – geez, I’m getting old.)

Mark and Anon have spent the last few years in Pai. Anon, chef extraordinaire, runs the Om Garden Cafe kitchen dazzling Pai’s smartest visitors with scrumptious treats ranging from a fabulous Mediterranean plate of hummus and baba ganoush to a knock-your-socks-off pavlova. You never know what Continue…

Vomit Road to Pai

I don’t get carsick. Well, I didn’t think I did. I’ve driven across Europe, the Middle East, Central America, and Africa. I crossed North America multiple times. We’ve driven thousands of miles across Asia including the most notorious mountain regions on the continent, including Sichuan, Qinghai, Tibet, Nepal, Spiti, Ladakh, Kashmir, and Sikkim. And I’ve never gotten carsick once… until the vomit road to Pai.

Apparently, I’m not the only one. When we arrived in Pai, everyone kept asking whether we had gotten carsick on the way in. I have absolutely no explanation for what makes this road so bad. It’s well paved, quite smooth, and the bus driver wasn’t nearly as bad as the drivers in China, Nepal and India. So what is causing so many visitors, both Thai and foreign alike, to get sick? Could it be the swirling cosmic energies that have made Pai the New Age center of Thailand?Can cosmic energy make you puke?

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…

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.