Enjoying Barcelona’s Beaches and Medieval City

Barcelona is much more than just Gaudi’s work.  We enjoyed it’s beautiful weather, it’s beaches, it’s markets, and it’s Ciutat Vella (Old City).  We spent most of Friday and Saturday in the old city and walking along the beach.  While November wasn’t quite sunbathing weather, it was still nice enough to walk along the boardwalk in short sleeves, eat tapas outside at one of the restaurants, and sit on the bench enjoying the view of the Mediterranean Sea.  Other than the beach, a Christopher Columbus statue that is pointing the wrong way and lots of boats, there isn’t too much to see or do along the waterfront, but it’s a great place to relax and enjoy the sublime weather.

The Boardwalk, Boats, and Food

The medieval part of the city is between the waterfront and where our hotel was.  We stayed in the new part of the city which is officially outside what use to be the ‘old city’s’ wall.  The new part of the city is incredibly clean, beautiful and modern.  It has every thing you could possibly need.  At times I almost forgot we were still in Spain.  It’s very westernized with lots of high end shops and restaurants and nearly everyone seems to know English (and French, and Catalan, and Spanish).  The ‘old city’ however is unique – you know you’re somewhere special.  It almost feels like you’ve been transported back in time.  Most of the old city dates back to the middle ages and there are even some Roman ruins dating back 2,000 years.  Like Toledo, there are lots of narrow, cobblestone streets which are for pedestrians only – making it fun to wander around.  Most of it is very well preserved, clean and safe.  Inside all these beautiful old buildings are museums and churches as well as lots of cute shops and restaurants hiding in there too.

Restaurants, Markets and Art in Barcelona’s Medieval City

Among this maze of streets and alleyways we found the amazing Cathedral first, and then we saw three other old churches: Santa Maria del Mar (which use to be on the ocean and over time has become landlocked), Santa Maria de Pi (which was surrounded by art booths), and the cute little country church, Sant Pau de Campo.  I really liked Sant Pau de Campo. It’s really tiny and it’s the oldest one in Barcelona at almost 1,000 years old.  It use to be out in the sticks, now it’s in the middle of the city.  When we were there, there were some musicians practicing inside and the acoustics were amazing.  Barcelona’s old section also has it share of quaint plazas, hidden courtyards, parks, musicians, art,  festivals and fresh food markets too.  Despite spending the better part of two days down in that area, we didn’t come close to seeing everything.  We’ll have to come back to Barcelona for sure.  Just like Madrid, there is so much to see and do around there, it would take a long time to complete that list.

Narrow Streets, Stained Glass Windows and Musicians

Visiting the Old Churches of Barcelona

To see more pictures of Barcelona, click on the picture below:

So much yummy cheese! 🙂

 

 

 

Storks, Cervantes, and a University: Alcala de Henares

White Storks on Top of the Buildings

While I’m working on our posts from Barcelona, I figured I should publish our post on the place we went the weekend before.

Alcala de Henares is an interesting place for many reasons.  First, is it’s university.  Alcalá de Henares was the world’s first planned university city… the first city to be designed and built solely around a university.  It has served as the model for many other university towns in Europe and the Americas (UNESCO World Heritage Website).  All universities before this one existed because there was a city already there.  That fact alone put it on my ‘must see’ list.  I must admit though, neither one of us thought the university itself was that special.

What we liked much better was the medieval part of the city that was next to it.  The old, narrow, cobblestone streets, the buildings with lots of ironwork, and the huge covered sidewalks.  It reminded me of New Orleans, but cleaner and nicer.  There were so many churches, convents, and monasteries in that area that steeples and spires were sticking up all over….making for some beautiful photo opportunities.  And on the tops of these classic old buildings were (what I enjoyed the most about this city) – the beautiful white storks.  The city claims to have some 90 pairs of storks living there.  Just about every time we looked up we could see them either in their nests or flying around.  Some buildings would just have one nest, but most had more.  There were 14 nests on an old building beside the Archbishops Palace.

Statue of Cervantes in front of his house

There are lots of other interesting things about this city.  It was here at the Archbishops Palace where Christopher Columbus met with King Ferdinand for the first time and planned his excursion to the West.   Catherine of Aragon was born in the Archbishops Palace as well (she ended up being the first wife of King Henry VII of England).  And guess who else was born in this town?  Cervantes, the great Spanish author of Don Quijote.  The main plaza in the city’s center is named after him and you can visit the house he was born in.  On the second floor of his house are old editions of his books (in many different languages).  The oldest one we saw was 1605.  There are also two child saints (Justus and Pastor ) buried in the cathedral.  The city has Roman, Moorish, and Jewish history associated with it as well.  We briefly stopped in the archeological museum which displayed various mosaics and artifacts from these and earlier settlements dating back more than 2,000 years.  Everything we saw was very interesting and educational.  In a way, I felt like I was in school all day.

Stork nest on the Archbishop’s Palace

The last thing we decided to do before heading back home was have lunch.  This city still preserves the old Spainish tradition of getting a free tapa when you order any drink. The inside of the restaurant we ate at was beautiful: brick archways, wooden beams on the ceiling, a copper bar, chandeliers, and old wooden tables (I really should have taken a picture).  I ordered a glass of wine, and got some ham croquettas and french fries for free!  Robert ordered coffee and got a plate of ham, eggs, and potatoes for free!  We could have chosen from a number of different tapas – including hamburgers, calamari, salmon sandwiches, etc.   Our total lunch bill ended up being only 5.50 euro (about $6.50) – not bad for Europe.

Alcala was a much bigger city than the places we have been visiting.  It is definitely interesting and the most lively and youthful place we’ve been so far  – I’m so glad we went.  However, other than the storks and free food, I’m not sure there is anything here that would keep bringing me back….unless I was 20 years younger.  It’s a great college town but it’s definitely geared more toward singles and young couples.

 

 

Autumn in The Gardens of Aranjuez

Apollo Fountain in the Isle Garden

Aranjuez is not on the typical tourist’s radar.  I’ve seen it mentioned in our guide books but they don’t give any specific information on it.  It seems to be more of a day trip for the local folk.  It’s widely known for it’s strawberries, asparagus, and most importantly, it’s palace and gardens.  It’s not far from Madrid and it’s easily accessible on the local commuter train.  When it’s strawberry season,  you can actually take the Strawberry Train to Aranjuez (which I might have to do someday if I can find someone else who wants to take it with me).  It sounds interesting and yummy, despite being touristy.

After our now habitual Spanish breakfast (pastries & coffee), we caught the next train to Aranjuez.  The countryside getting there was not particularly attractive.  It was mostly hilly, dry and industrial.  However, as we approached the town, there were all of a sudden irrigated fields, gardens, and trees.  Aranjuez is the last city on that train line and once you get there, it’s like stepping into an oasis.  There are wide, tree-lined streets and sidewalks which lead you directly to the center of town and palace.

Interestingly enough, this palace was designed by the same two gentlemen that designed El Escorial (the HUGE monastery).  However, this palace is much more attractive.  I read it is incredibly beautiful on the inside, but we weren’t really interested in seeing the inside this time because it’s the palace gardens that are listed as a UNESCO Cultural Landscape Site, and I love gardens.  We decided to check out the gardens by the palace first then, if we had time, we’d walk around the town.

Ducks on the River

The gardens looked more like something I would expect to find in France  – not here in such an arid part of Spain.  There were trees and shrubs and fountains everywhere!  We must have seen 40-50 different fountains that day.  My favorite fountain was the guy sitting on the wine barrel (although Apollo was looking mighty fine).  The gardens are huge and geometrically designed.  The walkways were going off in every direction.  Most people had maps, but we just wandered around slowly and discovered all the treasures hidden inside.

The Isle garden (with most of the fountains) is actually on a manmade island on the Tagus river (that’s the same river that runs around Toledo).  There were lots of birds and ducks and a couple of little water falls along the river.  It also looked like you could do boat trips or kayak on some parts of the river – I’ll have to do some research on that.  I know there is a hike in the area, and it looks like it would also be an ideal place to do some biking.

Robert at El Rana Verde Restaurant

Before we knew it it was lunchtime (2pm).  We learned the hard way that you don’t want to be late for lunch in Spain or you won’t find an empty restaurant.  I only knew about two restaurants in town (both were listed in my hiking book).  We found one right away and it was right on the river.  We decided to give it a try even though it looked pretty fancy (the waiters wore suits).  We were unsure at first, but we ended up having a great waiter (yes, in Spain! where they are notoriously known for being awful).  There was a huge Spanish family (22 people) dining beside us so I thought for sure we’d be forgotten, but he was right on time with everything and very friendly.  We each ordered the “Menu del Dia” which included a starter, a main course, a dessert, and a whole BOTTLE of wine – all for only 15 euro ($20).  This may have been the best bargain meal I’ve ever had.  I really wanted to take pictures of our gourmet dishes, but I felt it was inappropriate in a place this nice….maybe when we get our iPhone (then it will be less conspicuous).

After our 2 hour lunch we headed out to work off some of those calories, but the clouds were rolling in, so instead, we skipped the city and briefly peeked into the Prince’s garden.  After a few sprinkles of rain we thought it best to head back to Madrid.  Our timing was perfect, the train was there just waiting for us.  🙂

We both really loved Aranjuez.  It’s beautiful, laid back, and it seemed to be the most ‘authentic’ Spanish experience we’ve had so far.  It’s amazing how different this town was from Toledo.  I’m finding that every city, town, and suburb here is different.  Each has their own personality, their own foods, their own look, and their own vibe.  I can’t wait to visit some more.  I feel like a little kid in a candy store!

Summer Palace in Aranjuez

Our Restaurant on the River

A Tremendous Time in Toledo

Alcantara Bridge – An Entrance into Toledo

There seems to be a heated cyber debate as to which city is better, Toledo or Segovia.  While I have not been to Segovia yet, I can say that Toledo should not be missed.  It is an easy 30 minute non-stop train ride from Madrid to the base of the city’s historical center, and there is so much to see and do. It warrants at least two full days.  We only went for a day trip this time but we will definitely be going back at some point to spend a night.

Actually, what I consider to be one of the most beautiful things Toledo is it’s surroundings.  The Tagus river (which is the longest river in Spain) nearly surrounds this hilltop city, creating a little canyon around it.  In the past it played a strategic role in the city’s defense, today it just adds to it’s charm.  The views from anywhere along the river are amazing and if you just want to take a stroll or do some fishing, there is a lovely walking/biking path around the base of the hill.

Robert in Toledo

While most people take the bus to the main plaza from the train station (which is beautiful btw), it’s just as easy to walk.  In 10 short minutes, the walk brings you to one of the two beautiful old bridges that cross the Tagus: the Alcantara bridge.  From here, there are wonderful views of the Alcazar, parts of the old wall, the medieval castle of San Servando, and of course the river.  We went thru the keyhole shaped entrance at the other side of the bridge which lead up LOTS of steep steps until we reached the old part of the city very near the main plaza.  After walking around the city all day, one thing becomes very apparent: it’s a steep, hilly city built with lots of rocks and bricks.  I’m really glad I wore my walking shoes!

Our goal this trip was to get to know the city and avoid other tourists as much as possible.  I think we did a pretty good job considering it was a Saturday.  We managed to visit two museums (El Greco and Santa Cruz), one mosque (Cristo de La Luz circa 999AD), the oldest synagogue in Europe (Santa Maria Blanca), one church (San Ramon), both historic bridges, the Puerta Bisagra and the Puerta del Sol.  We literally walked all over the city. In the process we ate pastries, did some window shopping, had a deliciously long Spanish-style lunch (with a bottle of wine), bought some mazapan (Toledo’s traditional sweet), and took LOTS of pictures.

Inside San Ramon Church

We also saw lots of places we will try to visit next time we are there including the famous cathedral, the monastery, and the Alcazar (military museum).  By the end of the day, I noticed something interesting about this town.  Though it’s very compact, every section of the old city has it’s own personality.  The west side was more open and park like, while the center was compact and dark (the narrow, curvy cobblestone streets and alleys challenged my navigational skills several times).  The Jewish Quarter was very quiet and reserved, whereas the main plaza was loud with lots of activity.  This will all be highly useful information when I go to book our hotel.

The Narrow Streets of Toledo

Just think about it: There is more than two thousand years of history within the walls of Toledo, and the whole city is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  All the civilizations that lived here (the Romans, Visigoths, Moors, Jews, and Christians) left a wealth of treasures for us to enjoy in the forms of architecture, art and culture.  I can’t imagine someone not liking this city – as there is something for everyone.  The only area that didn’t really appeal to me was around the main Plaza which was way too ‘touristy’ –  too many shops, advertisements and even a McDonald’s.  I know others like that sort of thing though.

Right before our train left for Madrid, we had a taxi take us to the other side of town across the river, so we could get a view of the whole city.  It is an incredible sight to see…no wonder El Greco painted it. 🙂

Click on the photos to see more pictures of Toledo.

The Cathedral

The Alcazar

The Monastery in San Lorenzo de Escorial

Basilica Dome at El Escorial

We were looking to get away from the city again and see a little bit of fall color so we went to the town of San Lorenzo which is about 45 minutes away from Madrid.  We arrived around 10:00 am and made a quick stop for some delicious pastries and coffee before heading out to see the sights.  It was a beautiful cool Sunday morning as we walked through the very quiet streets of this picturesque town.  I use to think the Japanese were late risers, but the Spanish have them beat.  They don’t wake up until about noon!

The main attraction here is the Monastery, El Escorial, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It was built during the reign of King Philip II in the mid 1500’s.  When it was built, it was the largest building in the world for quite a long time.  The outside is very stark and boring looking – reminds me more of a prison.  It’s in an extremely pretty area though and it really stands out.  They don’t let you take pictures inside the complex, so in order to see what it looks like on the inside, you will have to click the link above or, better yet, go see it for yourself.

El Escorial Monastery

Overall, it’s really impressive.  To adequately see the whole place, it takes 3-4 hours and you have to follow the arrows or you will get lost.  It’s so large, it actually houses several museums, a palace, a mausoleum, a church, a library and a school all in one.  They should sell multi-day tickets.  You have to be FAR away if you want to get a picture of the whole place.

If you pay the fee to go inside you get to see a collection of tapestries and a huge painting by El Greco, followed by the Museum of Architecture which includes drawings that were used to design the building as well as the materials they used to build it…it’s pretty amazing.  Then there is the never-ending art gallery.  While Philip II was known to be a fairly modest and simple king, he loved art and collected over 1,500 paintings and commissioned some 500 frescos (the frescos are fantastic).  I’m not sure we saw that many but it sure felt like it.

View of Countryside & Gardens from Palace

Next we saw the palace and royal living quarters.  That wasn’t very exciting.  It was mostly just rooms with furniture and a few decorations.  There was one wooden door however that had exquisite detail all over it which looked like something probably done in Japan or China.  We also got to see King Phillip’s room – preserved exactly the way it was the day he died – kinda creepy.  The views out the palace windows of the gardens and surrounding countryside were beautiful though.  I did manage to sneak in a couple pictures of that!

The coolest thing in the whole place was by far the solid pink & black marble hallway and staircase which descended deep into the Pantheon.  This solid marble circular room contains nearly all the Spanish Kings from the last 400 years!  Standing in the center of all those black marble & gold caskets was a bit intimidating.  There are only two spots left – and they are for the current king’s parents.  The current and future kings of Spain will have to be buried somewhere else.

Mausoleum of Past Kings & Queens of Spain (from a postcard)

We passed thru at least a dozen other tomb “rooms”.  They housed all the other royal family members including princes, princesses, husbands, wives, infants and children.  It gets pretty depressing after a while.  The most bizarre tomb we saw was for the infants which is oddly shaped like a wedding cake.

We proceeded onward to the grand hallway and staircase,  the old chapel, the huge basilica (in which Mass was being held), and finally the library.  The library is considered to be one of the most important historic libraries in the world. It supposedly contains about 45,000 works from the 15th and 16th centuries, and thousands of manuscripts in Arabic, Latin, and Spanish.  It is a beautiful library, but it didn’t feel that big or that old.  It didn’t even smell old (like the Trinity Library in Dublin did).  It’s nearly in mint condition.  The bookcases are beautiful and the ceiling is strikingly bright and colorful – decorated with frescoes related to the the seven liberal arts.  It was fun to try and find them!

The town of San Lorenzo

We were finally finished and we were exhausted.  We had originally intended to take a hike next but we just didn’t have the energy.  There were other buildings included in the visit too (which are set in the gardens and countryside), but we didn’t have the energy for that either.  We also wanted to see The Valley of the Fallen which was close by.  There’s just so much to see around here!   I guess we will just have to come back. 😉

To see some more pictures click on the picture.

Monastery Tower

The Amazing Angkor Archaeological Park

Carvings in Angkor Thom

Our life has changed a bit, but before I can move on with our new adventures, I just had to wrap up our trip from last winter.  This particular place was just too important not be included in our travel memoirs.

Angkor Archaeological Park is simply a place that must be seen in person. Pictures and blogs will never do it justice.  It’s one of the largest archaeological sites in the world containing over 1,000 temples in some 350 square miles (at one time it was the largest preindustrial city in the world).  Today most of the area is covered in jungle.  It is an incredibly interesting place, and I could write a book about it but instead I will just focus on the highlights from our time there.  If you ever go, three days is the minimum time needed to see the main sights.

We stayed in Siem Reap which is the closest city to the park.  It is only 15 minutes away from this amazing UNESCO World Heritage Site.  We were there during Christmas break and the weather was perfect.  I was surprised to see the sheer number of families with small children that were there.  I erroneously imagined it would be mostly post-college singles and older couples.  I had read Cambodia was still relatively ‘unsafe’ with malaria, dengue fever, poverty, 3rd world sanitary conditions, and questionable food sources.  While I’m sure all those do exist somewhere in the country that did not seem to be the case around Siem Reap and Angkor Park.  I was also surprised to find it functioned almost completely in US dollars and most people spoke English, thus making it easier to visit than some of the other Asian countries we visited.

Entrance into Angkor Park

We had a guide come with us the first day we were there just to help us get our bearings and make sure we didn’t miss anything.  Unless you really aren’t interested in the history behind this place (or if you already know the history), a guide is a good idea for at least one day.  The park opened at 8am and we bought our 3 day pass – which took about 5 minutes.  Our guide recommended seeing the Angkor Wat Temple first since he knew it would only get more crowded as the day went on (and he was right). We arrived and parked outside the temple’s West Entrance.  The sun was low in the sky and we could see the famous silhouette in the distance. It was much larger than I expected.  The morning’s haze only added to it’s magic and mystic.  It is surrounded by a moat (which is nearly as wide as the Mississippi River).  A long, wide, sandstone walkway leads all the way to the temple.  Walking up that stone causeway and approaching the temple for the first time was definitely a highlight.  I had to keep pinching myself.  I’m still in disbelief that we were actually there.

Bayon’s Faces

Most of the temples in the area are built in tiers, rising like pyramids.  The local landscape is completely flat so the temples really stand out.  Some of these ‘temples’ were actually cities, covering large areas of land and containing many different buildings.  Angkor Wat’s first level had two libraries, a monestary, and two seasonal ‘pools’ (which beautifully reflect the temple).  There use to be many homes (which have long since deteriorated since they were made of wood).  Today this level is mostly jungle and the only remaining ‘residents’ are a lot of monkeys.  Angkor Thom was much larger in total area than Angkor Wat.  It took a couple days to see all the buildings located within it’s perimeter.

Besides the sheer number and size of these structures, what is really amazing is the detail carved into every block.  In the case of Angkor Wat, every side of the walled entrance was adorned from floor to ceiling with remarkably detailed bas-reliefs….each one telling a different story.  This was the case at other temples as well.  Bayon had huge faces carved all over its facade.  Entry gates and bridges were adorned with large statues and various carvings of immense detail.  It was almost impossible to take it all in.  Once you get inside the buildings there are cloisters, buddhas, old pools, and soaring towers.   Climbing up the very steep stairways lead to the very tops of the temples where we were rewarded with some magnificent views looking out over the jungle.

Ta Prohm – Roots Swallowing Temple

We probably saw close to 100 different buildings and it was hard deciding which was our favorite.  Some people get ‘templed out’, but we never did.  They are all uniquely different because of their history, their layout, the carvings, the colors, their remoteness or their current natural state.  One of our favorites was Ta Prohm (which was used as the location for the movie Tomb Raider).  This temple is literally being swallowed by the jungle.  Massive trees have wrapped their roots around the structures and are crushing, covering, and mangling them into irrecognizable forms.  Though this temple was not anywhere near the scale of some of the other temples we visited, it was totally mesmerizing.  The trees around it were of mythical proportions.  The detail and colors in the stonework here were incredible.  The whole place was eye candy for us photo enthusiasts.  It is in pretty bad shape but fortunately (and unfortunately) they have started restoration work.

In fact, throughout the park, restoration work is taking place (which is very badly needed).  Our guide mentioned all the countries taking part in the restoration efforts at Angkor Park.  The causeway we walked up to Angkor Wat was being done by Japan.  He showed us a section that had been repaired versus an area that had not.  Other temples we visited had huge blocks laid out with numbers on them, others had scaffolding covering parts of the structure.  As the jungle takes over, these massive sites are slowly falling into disrepair and rubble.  While a lot of progress has been made, there is SO much work still to be done that it may take centuries to recreate what was once there.

Besides temples, there is plenty of things to see and do in the area.  In addition to the city of Siem Reap, there is Tonle Sap lake and plenty of shops, crafts, museums and small villages to visit.  We didn’t have nearly enough time to do it all.  If you’re a foodie, I have to say Cambodian food is good but simple and their desserts were interesting…overall probably my least favorite food in Asia.  We loved the Cambodian people though, who were always very friendly and always willing to help.

If we ever have the opportunity to visit again, I’m sure we will.  It’s one of those places that will stick with us forever and it will keep calling us back.

If you want to see lots more photos click on the photos below:

Angkor Wat Temple

Making Palm Sugar

Downtown Siem Reap

 

 

 

 

 

Biking around Bangkok

Wat Suwan Plu

We arrived in Bangkok Friday evening, and settled into our apartment.  It was so nice to have a home-like space for the three days we were in Bangkok.  We loaded up the fridge with some essential snacks and drinks and felt immediately relaxed.  Our apartment building was located on a quiet street walking distance from some great restaurants yet conveniently located to all the major tourist sights.  It was a very nice place and we would definitely stay here again if we ever found ourselves in Bangkok.

On Saturday we did a bike tour of the Siam historic district of Bangkok with Follow Me Bike Tours.  I know it sounds crazy, but it was a lot of fun!  Since it was Saturday morning the traffic probably wasn’t as bad as a weekday.  We also lucked out and got a private tour again (probably because of the decreased number of tourists in the area due to the recent flooding).  We arrived at the clubhouse at 7:45am and met our two guides, Tob and Kathy.  Equipped with 24 gears, heavy duty shocks and ultra cushy seats we set off to tackle the jungle of Bangkok.  We did have to cross or ride on major streets a few times (thus experiencing cars and motorcycles whizzing by and large buses brushing up right beside us), but most of the trip we were on backstreets, narrow alleys, pathways and sidewalks which was actually a lot of fun.  Only someone who was intimately familiar with the area could do this route without any help.  We covered 25 km in 4 hours and got to see many historic sites in Bangkok that most tourists never see (or even know about).  The only bad thing about a bike tour is that it’s hard to take pictures unless you stop.  If you stop too much, you’re not going to get very far.  So some things we only got to see the outside of as we passed by.

In front of the Old Customs House

Our route followed north along the east bank of the Chao Phraya River.  We passed the Shangra-la Hotel and soon stopped at Wat Suwan Plu.  This temple had it’s own elementary school and we watched as the kids assembled early that morning.   Unlike the other wats we’d see everywhere else, the monk’s quarters were very simple.  They were made of wood boards and had pretty carved wood panels.  The bot (prayer hall) was white with beautiful carvings, statues, and some light blue tiles highlighted by touches of gold.  We continued on our way entering the farang (foreigner’s) quarter of Bangkok.  We passed the Assumption Cathedral, the East Asiatic Company, and the French Embassy before stopping at to the Old Customs House.  Built in the 1880’s, it was obvious that this was once an incredibly beautiful European style building, but now it’s in a very sad state (it’s great to photograph however).  The fire department uses the lot now, and there was still some water in the lot from the recent floods (sandbags were still piled four feet high along the river bank).  We were told there were plans to eventually restore the building to it’s original glory.  We then biked thru was a small Muslim community and past the Portuguese Chancellery (the Portuguese were the first foreigners to have formal ties with Siam), before stopping at the Holy Rosary Church (built by the Portuguese in 1786).  Outside the church was a garden with a little shrine, a Christmas tree, a tree with hanging presents, and a snowman made out of recently used sandbags.  The inside was a beautiful old fashioned church with ceiling fans, stained glass windows, and a gorgeous ceiling.

The Resident Crocodile

Then we biked through Chinatown.  Thank goodness we were there before the crowds arrived.  Even this early the place was like a beehive and almost impossible to get through at times.  We stopped once to get some pictures of the main walking street.  We followed Tob down all sorts of narrow corridors, past an old Chinese shrine, and we watched everyone frantically preparing for the busy weekend ahead. We stopped at Wat Chakrawat, which is a small temple with a black and gold facade.  Our guides were anxious to show us the most popular residents here – the crocodiles.  We peaked over the wall and sure enough there was one in the pond.  Right around the corner was another caged within a fence sleeping.  They turned on a hose to wake him up and cool him off with some cold water.  In a glass case near the pond, was the skeletal remains (with skin) of the first crocodile they pulled from the river some 50+ years ago.  Plenty of dogs and cats hung out in this area too.  We learned about the guards in front of the wats.  One is male and one female.  The male usually has a ball, and the female has a baby.

Wat Arun

We then made our way back to the river bank and stopped right before we entered Pak Khlong Market – Bangkok’s largest wholesale market.  Most restaurants and local markets come to here to get their goods.  It’s open 24 hours a day and it’s busiest in the morning.  Without stopping, we went through the market which was loaded up with everything you could possibly think of.  The array of smells we passed ranged from amazingly divine to very pungent.  The volumes of food moving through here made Costco look like child’s play.  Trucks were piled high with bananas, cabbage, peppers, onions, garlic, crates of fruit, etc.  There were bins and baskets filled with large industrial size bags of produce as well.  Carts, trolleys, and dollies were moving goods around.  This went on for several city blocks…all sorts of vegetables, fruits, fish, chicken, spices, flowers, and who knows what else.  I knew we’d have to come back here at some point to get some photos.  We stopped at a ferry dock right across from Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn).  Wat Arun is a stunning structure – even from far away and especially on a cloudy day.  We boarded the ferry and headed to the other side.

Wat Prayoon Chedi Courtyard

After we docked, we explored the temple grounds. We didn’t go into the Wat since we could easily admire it’s porcelain covered exterior from where we were.  We walked to the river bank and saw the official name of Bangkok.  Kathy read it out loud to us.  It’s in the world record book for the longest name of a place…translating to something like: “the city of angels, the great city, home of the emerald Buddha, built by…etc”. We biked south along a boardwalk paralleling the west bank of the river and stopped at the very old Chinese shrine, Kuan Yin, dedicated to the god of mercy.  Looking like it’s been standing there untouched for 200 years, this place could use some mercy (or restoration work).  Our next stop was Santa Cruz Catholic Church (built by the Portuguese).  Finally we stopped at Wat Prayoon which had it’s own museum.  The 180 year old all white chedi was recently restored and all sorts of amulets and buddhas were found inside it’s chambers.  This is the only chedi we were able to actually go inside.  The courtyard was beautiful lined with old pieces of timber taken from the chedi’s interior during it’s restoration.  We went into the very center of the chedi admiring the secret room and then climbed up to the top for a great view.

The Fish Spa

We went a little further south and eventually took another ferry back across the river and continued back to the clubhouse. Tob stopped and ordered all of us some street food which we brought back to the house and ate for lunch.  The owners had a spa fish bath on their property which Robert decided to try.  As soon as he put his feet in, the fish went after him – nibbling all over.  He started laughing saying how much it tickled.  I didn’t try it…for some reason I had images of piranhas in my head.  We talked for awhile, wrote comments on their wall and then headed back to our hotel to relax.

We loved getting to see the city this way and we’d for sure do another bike tour if we return to Bangkok.  In addition to the pictures we took, Tob also took some pictures during the tour and sent them to us.  Looking back, it’s amazing how much we saw that day…

 

Day 7 & 8 – Bangkok Bike Tour

Our Final Days in Chiang Mai

Worarot Market

Worarot Market

Our week in Chiang Mai flew by.  We only had two days to really relax and just enjoy the city.  One day after a yummy “French-Thai” lunch (and an awesome pomelo salad!), we walked the streets of the neighborhood.  We headed straight for the huge local markets we saw along the Ping river when we were returning from Chiang Dao.  On the map it is called Worarot Market –  it was nearly void of tourists.  This is where the locals come to shop – as most items for sale were practical day to day goods.  The market’s main building, which is over 100 years old is three stories tall.  The first story is all food: meats, fish, vegetables – from fresh to dried, preserved, and packaged.  The second floor was filled with clothing and fabrics, and the top floor looked to be toys, furniture and more clothes (we actually never made it up there).  The “market” however, is not just confined to that building.  All the adjoining streets and buildings house more shops containing all sorts of items for sale:  Electronics, kitchen goods, sewing repair shops, tools, jewelry, shoes, etc.  It’s a maze with little alley walls and halls leading everywhere. I’m pretty sure only a local resident could find the same shop twice around here.  Just when we thought we were out, we quickly realized we were in the flower market.  Adjacent to that was a “food court” and the butcher shop…are you getting the picture?  Finally we did find our way out and ended up at the Chinese Shrine, Pong Thao Kong.  Here I read, that this section of the city is where the largest number of Chinese settlers took up residence and started their businesses, so the whole area is also referred to as the China Town of Chiang Mai.  This whole area was so interesting, we decided to plant ourselves atop a foot bridge nearby and hang out for a while.  It was fun watching the vibrant city below us and the everyday activity of it’s people.

Wat Doi Suthep Patrons

Wat Doi Suthep Patrons

On our last day in Chiang Mai, we hired a driver for half a day and went up the mountain 8 miles west of the city to to see Wat Doi Suthep.  A wat that was built because a white elephant caring the magical self-replicating buddha statue came up here, trumpeted, turned around three times and died.  Personally, I think they built it here for the view.  From up here you can also see the whole city of Chiang Mai (which is best right before sunset).  We went mid-morning, so the view was still mostly obstructed by morning rays and haze.  The mountain also has waterfalls, trails, birds, and the king’s palace (which if we had more time I’d come back to explore).  Despite the excessive number of visitors, the wat really is worth seeing.  It’s packed with tourists.  Vendors are lined up all along the streets right to the base of the stairs.  There are tour buses and cars everywhere.  I felt like I was at Disneyland.  Fortunately our taxi driver knew a great spot to park not far from the entrance and we managed to avoid most of the mayhem.  We spent nearly 2 hours here, so obviously there is a lot worth seeing.   The stairs up are pretty cool.  The railing on both sides is a long green undulating serpent dragon with four serpent dragons coming out of it’s mouth.  Local mother’s come here with their young children dressed up in traditional dress who will take their picture with you (hoping for a tip).  When you get to the top, it’s a double bonus.  The outside courtyard is wide open and beautiful…almost worth an hour itself.   The inside is a different world (and totally worth the 30 baht ($1) entrance fee) – ornate and loaded with religious artifacts.  The gold plated chedi, the murals, the emerald buddhas, and religious relics of all sorts.  There is an amazing number of intensely devout subjects who come here despite all the tourists taking pictures.  How they managed to block us all out, amazed me.

Wat Suan Dok

Wat Suan Dok

Our last stop was Wat Suan Dok.  This is the wat where the famous white elephant (mentioned above) started it’s journey.  From these grounds you can easily see Wat Doi Suthep up in mountain.  The name Suan Dok roughly translates to “Field of Flowers” – how nice is that?  We really enjoyed this place.  There were only a handful of tourists, lots of monks, and it was so different from the others.  It had a huge, long prayer hall that I couldn’t even fit in my camera lens. Instead of the prayer hall being enclosed, it was open on all sides so it didn’t feel confining or too formal.  Next door to the hall was a huge burial ground – a forest of white reliquaries….containing the remains of Chiang Mai’s past rulers/leaders (the national royal burial grounds!).  The whole place is also very photogenic as well.  But, the absolute best thing about this place, was the little restaurant hidden just off the grounds.  Our cooking instructor mentioned it, and I had seen it mentioned in a couple other local blogs, so I was hell bent on finding this gem – and fortunately we did.  Pun Pun was, without a doubt, the best place we ate in Thailand.  It’s all organic yet incredibly inexpensive.  The presentation of the food is impeccable, the service friendly and relaxed, the atmosphere casual and fun, and the food was mouthwatering fresh and flavorful.  I hope this place is still here when we return.  We had an absolutely amazing time in Chiang Mai, and we really weren’t ready to leave.  It’s easy to understand why there are so many repeat visitors.  We barely scratched the surface of everything there is to do here.  We’ll definitely come back here someday.

Day 6 – Doi Suthep & Wat Suan Dok

Wats in the Old City of Chiang Mai

East Gate

Sunday we decided to spend the day in the Old City of Chiang Mai.  The whole city of Chiang Mai has some 300+ Wats (temples), and we wanted to see some of the oldest and most popular ones.  We were a little sore from biking, so we figured walking would be a great way to loosen up our muscles.  We did take our time getting ready and enjoying another delicious breakfast though (this time I had the French toast with Strawberry cream – yum!).  We then slapped on the sunscreen and headed out.  All we had for navigating the town was a small map from the concierge.  There wasn’t much detail on it, so hopefully we’d be able to find all the places we intended to visit.

Very early on in the day we ran into a postman who was really excited to see us.  He wouldn’t stop talking about everything to see in his city.  He asked for my map and he highlighted the “must do’s” (which we already planned).  He also warned us not to go to any tailors.  We thanked him and moved on.  There were wats every couple of blocks on the main street into the city and we kept getting side tracked because each one is so interesting.  One we visited had a Donald Duck statue in it and a woman trying to sell us caged birds so we could set them free.  Chiang Mai was full of bizarre little things like that.  We eventually made it to the East Gate.

Wat Chiang Man

The East Gate (Thapae) is the main gate into the old city.  The old city is over 700 years old, and was once entirely surrounded by brick walls and surrounded by a moat.  In the middle of each walled side was a gate.  Parts of the wall still remain, and so does the entire moat (which is now like a park surrounding the Old City).  It’s fun to imagine what it must have been like before this big city surrounded it.  When we got inside, I almost wish we didn’t have a plan, because there were shops, cafes, restaurants, cooking schools, little alleys, and all sorts of other wonderful distractions we could have spent days exploring – oh well, maybe another time.

The first Wat we wanted to find was Wat Chiang Man, the oldest temple in Chiang Mai (built around 1270).  It served as a camp for the King while they built the city.  The wat’s grounds were pleasantly quiet and uncrowded…it felt more like a little community park.  The structures weren’t overly ornate and the buildings were simple and not very big.  The best part was the “elephant chedi” which was in the very center.  The base was constructed with the front halves of full size elephant statues all the way around.  And the murals inside the wihan (shrine hall) were also very attractive.  We saw lots of dogs and cats wondering around the grounds here as well – and people reading.  We tried to sneak out of this complex to avoid the tuk tuk driver who caught us when we first came in.  He begged us to let him take us to the wats in town, even though we told him we wanted to walk.  After a few minutes we just left, telling him we’d meet him later (which we never did).

We continued on our way through the old city to the North Gate (Puerk) – probably the most attractive entrance into the old city.  It had a set of topiary elephants to great everyone and fountains in the moats.  We then headed back to the city center.  We stopped briefly at the square in the center of the city where the Monument of the 3 Kings stands (it is devoted to the 3 Kings that were responsible for building the city).  We took a right down the main street to the west side and Wat Phra Singh.  This wat was like the “wat cathedral” –  it’s a very large complex, with lots of big buildings and it was very busy.  It’s one of the largest wats in Chiang Mai and it’s been restored several times.  While impressive in it’s size, it lacked in personality.  The highlight of this complex was Ho Trai (the temple library) and Wihan Lai Kham – because of their classic Lanna style architecture and the building details both inside and out.

Wat Luang

After a short break, we headed toward the West Gate (Suan Dok).  We walked all the way along the moat until we got to the South Wall.  As soon as we could see the southern gate we slowly made our way back into the city center.  We only got side tracked once (a small local wat – which was a good find).   The last wat on our list, Wat Luang was next.  Even though it was a large wat, it wasn’t busy.  We went inside and checked out the towering gold buddha and his extravagant alter and then headed out the side.  Expecting to see similar buildings as before, we weren’t prepared for the huge, beautiful, old and damaged chedi standing in front of us…what a sight!  Guess we managed to save the best for last.  The courtyard around this chedi was the main focal point of Wat Luang.  We spent a lot of time slowly going around it, relaxing on the benches in the shade admiring it’s size and details (it use to be 270 feet tall – and is slowly being restored).  There was also a huge tree near the small but very intricate city pillar.  Legend has it that as long as this tree stands, Chiang Mai will be protected.  By 2pm, it was getting warm, and we were getting tired, so we relaxed a bit before heading back to our hotel for a quick siesta.

Sunday Market

On the way back to the hotel, we noticed they were already setting up for tonight and we could tell it was going to be huge.  The famous Sunday market was tonight, and we were not going to miss it.  I’m glad we had a couple hours to rest up before it started.  We were told to get there early – to beat the crowds.

We got there about 5pm.  The traffic was horrendous – we almost couldn’t get across the street.  The market was huge.  It actually started several blocks outside the Gate…and then went on for nearly a kilometer on the inside.  It branched off down side streets and into the wats.  There were food courts, areas set up for foot message, areas for entertainment.   And the variety of arts and crafts for sale was incredible.  You have to see all the pictures to believe it.  All the food looked awesome…we snacked on a few things while we walked through it all.  We tried a soft chicken taco (thai style), some homemade vanilla ice cream, and of course, the pad thai.

We noticed that the quality of the products seemed to decline the further we went.  And, as it got darker, the crowds grew to the point where it was hard to walk as well as shop.  When things get that busy, we tend to leave, so we decided to head out of the city and down to the river to find somewhere to relax and have a nice drink and another bite to eat.  We came upon a place called Deck 1 which was new and very modern looking.  They sat us on these nice, big, soft cushions on their deck overlooking the river.  It was so nice and quiet and the mojito I had was SO good.  It ended up being exactly what we needed – and a great way to wind down our day.  🙂  All the day’s pictures are here:

Day 2 – Exploring Old Town Chiang Mai

Cycling the Hills of Chiang Dao

Banana Pancakes with Mango Gelato

Most people start their vacations by sleeping in…not us.  It was Saturday morning, and we were up at 6am.  Of course it felt more like 8am given the time difference from Japan, so it really wasn’t a big deal.  The sunrise was soooo beautiful, and we had a delicious full buffet breakfast waiting for us.

There was more food in that buffet than was humanly possible to consume: a large selection of fresh fruit & juices, pastries, yogurts, muesli, smoked salmon, cheeses, salads, noodles, soups, breads & jams.  We could also order anything off the hot menu.  We not only tried a bit of everything on the buffet, but we ordered hot meals as well.  Heck, why not, we had an active 9 hours ahead of us.  And I’ve got to say….my banana pancakes with mango gelato were particularly scrumptious.

Biking in the Hills of Chiang Dao

As promised, our bike guide and driver picked us up at 8:15am.  We found out we were the only ones scheduled for today’s trip – which was an added bonus.  We got into the truck and started our 1 1/2 hour drive north.  It took a good 45 minutes to get out of the city, but it was worth the wait to see the beautiful countryside.  The roads became curvy and less crowded and the mountains and hills became more visible.   Eventually we entered a wide river valley and began traveling on small rural roads.  I’m pretty sure I couldn’t find this place on my own.  The last stretch was on a dirt track (with no signs).  We eventually drove thru two large open wooden gates.  Within the walled compound was a beautiful little complex.  I felt like I was in some scene from Romancing the Stone.  There was another group of people (from REI) that had spent several days biking in the area and they were getting ready to leave.  After our quick 15 minute rest stop, we were fitted for our mountain bikes and helmets, grabbed some bottled water, and headed on our way up the dirt road.

Hill Tribe Crafts

Kiki (our guide) lead the way.  She was great.  She’d stop along the way and point out the different types of trees, fruits, nuts, rice, coffee, and plants they grew (which is just about anything you can think of).  We stopped and watched the locals picking, packaging and hunting.  Sometimes we’d stop just to take pictures of the countryside.  In the course of about 2 hours (and 12 km) we also got to ride through and visit 5 different hill tribe villages (Karen, Akkha, Lahu, Lisu and Palong).  These villagers migrated from either Myanmar (Burma), China or Tibet  over 100 years ago and each have their own distinct culture and language.  The women stayed home and watched the kids, while the men went to work in the fields or to hunt.  They shared one vehicle in the village.  The women worked on crafts made of cotton (hats, coin holders, purses, wall hangings), stones/gems (for jewelry) or bamboo (for baskets).  They were always excited to see foreigners and would lay out blankets and display their creations in hopes of making a sale.  Chickens, dogs and pigs roamed freely.  Their houses and possessions were minimal, yet they all seemed content, and it was very clean.  Some of the old women had a very bad habit of chewing on betel nut (a stimulant), and their teeth had become chipped and black.  Actually learning about these people while you meet them was very interesting.

Cutting Bamboo for Baskets

Before we knew it, we were back at the lodge.  It was good timing, because riding on dirt roads without biking shorts and cycling up some good sized hills had started to take it’s toll.  The lodge offered us some soft drinks and a huge spread of food.  While it was all very good and healthy, we were a little disappointed it wasn’t that spicy.  Looking back, however, it was probably not only a good thing, but also intentional – especially since we still had 30 kilometers to go.

We rested for 20 minutes and then restocked our water.  Off we went, this time down the hills and across the valley.  The single dirt track we took was fun.  It had a good bit of sand on it (probably from the recent floods), and we would occasionally get stuck.  We rode through forest, and then past fields and orchards.  Finally we ended up on the rural road from which we could see Doi Chiang Dao mountain in the distance (the third highest mountain in Thailand).  The cave at the base of this mountain was our final destination.

Herbal & Root Medicines

It was pretty warm that afternoon and the sun was pretty intense.  We stopped at a rice “factory” and at a newly planted teak tree plantation for water breaks.  The driver followed us in case we needed a break from riding.  Fortunately, the closer we got to our mountain, the more shade there was.  We made it, but we were both glad to get off the bikes.  Walking around felt good.  There was a large market here which specialized in natural and herbal medicine.  If you had an ailment, they had a fix.  I forgot to ask if they had something for my numb bum.   We ended up not purchasing anything though, since it probably wouldn’t have gotten through customs in Japan.

Buddha in the Cave

We walked around the place to stretch our legs, take pictures of all the cool stuff, and cool off before we went inside the cave.  It was similar to other caves – except for the religious statues, articles and decorations scattered throughout.  There are supposedly 5 interconnected caves (at various levels) believed to stretch some 12 km under the mountain, but tourists usually only see the first 1km – which, quite frankly, is enough.  It’s humid and damp and some areas are pitch black.  We went as far as we could without lanterns and a cave guide.  At the end of the lighted area, there is an imprint on the wall of the royal emblem – the King and Queen paid a visit here in the ’60’s and someone left their mark.

It was now time to head back to Chiang Mai.  We were back at our hotel by 5:30.  A nice long shower and a short walk to dinner was the only thing on our mind.  What a great first day.  We packed a ton of stuff in and we knew we’d sleep great.  We were also looking forward to a leisurely day exploring the Old City tomorrow – if we could still move in the morning. 🙂

We took over 150 pictures that day.  Check them out on our picassa website:

Day 1 – Biking in Chiang Dao