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

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas in Bangkok – The Grand Palace, Wat Pho & Kukrit’s House

Visit to the Grand Palace

Christmas morning we walked to the Chao Phraya River and boarded the express ferry north bound for the Grand Palace and Wat Pho.  The Chao Phraya river was still way above normal, and at high tide we noticed the ferry boat barely fit under the bridges.  However, there were only a few sections along the river that still had sandbags up, and only one place that we saw evidence it happened.  While it may not be the prettiest or cleanest river (especially when we were there), it flows right through the heart of Bangkok and it is a great way to see the city.  The ferries were easy to use, very inexpensive, and stopped at many of the major attractions.  During our 20 minute river journey, we recognized a lot of the buildings we saw on our bike ride yesterday, and we ended up docking just north of where we were.

The Palace grounds opened at 8:00am and we were there by 8:10.  We were hoping to beat the crowds.  No such luck… 🙁 …it was already very crowded and hard to get pictures that didn’t have a bunch of other people in them.  The whole Grand Palace complex is actually quite large and consists of many different buildings, courtyards, lawns and gardens.  Only about a third of the property is even open to the public, since much of it is still used for official business.  It’s rather expensive to get in but we both really enjoyed it.  It would be much better though if they limited the number of people in there at any one time.

Temple of the Emerald Buddha

We started in the Outer Court (a huge lawn area) where we could see the spires and rooftops peaking over the wall of the temple.  Most people come to the Grand Palace just to see this temple – Wat Phra Kaeo (Temple of the Emerald Buddha).  It is considered the most sacred wat in Thailand, and it was the private chapel of many past Kings.  The 26 inch high green statue (which you can’t take pictures of and you can barely see since he is so high up) is believed to be the protector of Thailand.  Only the King is allowed to touch him (when he changes his garment every 4 months).  The buddha is actually made out of one big piece of jade (not an emerald), and this little fella has quite an interesting history (much to long to write about here).  Over the last 2000 years he has resided in India, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, and now Thailand.

The temple’s layout was similar to all the other wats we visited except that it did not have monk quarters. The grounds were completely walled off from the rest of the Palace grounds, and the inside of these walls were covered with beautiful brightly detailed murals.  By far the most memorable thing about this wat was how exuberantly ornate and over-the-top all the buildings were. There was so much detail and color going on, I felt dizzy – talk about sensory overload.  There were itty bitty tiny pieces of glass, tile, gems, and porcelain on just about everything.  The ordination hall (which houses the buddha) was huge and shimmered of gold and blue.

The Grand Palace

The elevated terrace had a huge gold chedi, a large scale model of Angor Wat, a library and royal pantheon (which were not open to the public), and all sorts of mythical characters throughout.  Anytime we glanced up we saw a sea full of spires.  Interesting statues were scattered throughout the premises as well, including the hermit statue (at the entry), the colorful guarding giants (which were rather comical looking), and various creatures positioned at entrances or in gardens.  After spending nearly three hours at the temple, we finally (but reluctantly) moved on to the Grand Palace area.  Wow – talk about a stark difference in architecture.  All of a sudden we felt like we were transported to Europe.  Buckingham Palace was the first thing that came to mind.  The only part of the buildings that looked remotely Thai were the roofs. It was Sunday and the ceremonial halls were closed. Neither of us were that interested in this bit, so we just walked around the grounds and checked out the museum before leaving the Palace premises completely.

Reclining Buddha

Wat Pho was not far down the road.  Considered the largest and oldest wat in Bangkok, it was also the site of Thailand’s first university and the birth place of Thai massage. 🙂  It houses over 1,000 buddhas including the largest reclining buddha in Thailand (which happens to be almost the same exact size as the one we saw in Japan – so we really wanted to see it).  When we arrived, the hall housing the reclining buddha was annoyingly over crowded, but with some patience, we did  get a few good views of him.  His feet were the most interesting part with all the inlaid mother-of-pearl scenes.  It’s supposedly taller and longer than the one in Japan but it didn’t seem that way (maybe because it is confined to the inside a building).   Even more than the reclining buddha, we both really enjoyed the rest of this wat since it was refreshingly uncrowded.  We were able to relax and move at a much slower pace to see the buddhas and the almost 200 chedi located on the property.  Given it’s proximity to the Grand Palace, many of the chedi here contain the ashes of past kings and their family members (another royal burial ground).  I  actually thought about getting a thai massage here, but we were too hungry and thirsty so we moved on to find a bite to eat instead.

Wholesale Vegetable Market

After a nice relaxing lunch and cold drinks at the Black Canyon Coffee Cafe we were now refreshed and ready to revisit the wholesale market which we zoomed through on our bikes yesterday morning.  The market was literally right down the street and we found it pretty quickly.  However, the markets were no where near as busy this time of day.  Much of the merchandise had already been moved out or bought.  We managed to snap a few good pictures while enroute to the ferry dock, but it just wasn’t the same.  We cruised back down the river and when we arrived at the central dock, we decided to take the BTS (Bangkok’s above ground train) back to our apartment instead of walking.  We were pleasantly surprised.  The BTS was extremely clean, efficient and cheap.  It was by far the best way to get around the inner parts of the city.  I hope they continue expanding the routes – and we really hope they eventually link it up to the airport.

M.R. Kukrit's Heritage Home

We got off one stop early since we still had a couple hours before we had to get ready for dinner.  For something really different we decided to stop at M.R. Kukrit’s Heritage House.  M.R Kukrit was an interesting man (a member of the royal family, an Oxford graduate, a writer, actor, poet and a former Prime Minister of Thailand).  When he died in 1995, he left his home to the public.  His home is the result of 20 years of work on two acres of land in a residential area of downtown.  All the buildings on the property are authentic traditional Thai houses (some are over 100 years old).   He brought them for various places in central Thailand and slowly reassembled them here (Thai houses are built to be moved).  It’s a very unique place – as this was his actual home (which still had all his stuff in it) and not some decorated exhibition that was thrown together.  I bet it is very rare to find this kind of property anywhere in Bangkok now.  One building was an open pavillion with a stage and housed a huge collection of antique masks.  The living quarters were made up of a group of small one room teak houses on elevated poles, creating a covered living space below that was open all the way around and surrounded by lovely gardens, pounds, and shrines.  He also had an impressive collection of antique books, art, and furniture as well.  I can only venture to guess what this piece of property is actually worth today.  The oddest thing we found on the grounds was his pet cemetery which had a gravestone marked “unknown mice” (he obviously also had a sense of humor).

Back at our apartment we had plenty of time to relax and have a cocktail before going to dinner.  It was a 5-10 minute walk to a French restaurant (inside a lovely old home) at which we had our Christmas dinner.  We didn’t have extremely high expectations but both of our dinners were actually quite delicious.  As we sat there and ate, we realized just how unusual a Christmas this was.  Can’t help but think that Santa must have thought we were awfully good this past year.  Check out these amazing places yourself, by clicking on the photo below.

Day 9 – Grand Palace, Wat Pho, & Kukrit’s House

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

Hiking Miyajima Island, Plus Hiroshima & The Peace Park

View of Torii Gate

View of the Famous Floating Torii Gate

We finally made it to Hiroshima and Miyajima.   After a series of really wet weekends, the weather could not have been more perfect for our trip and I’d have to say that these two UNESCO World Heritage sites were well worth the year long wait.  Even though they are extremely different, we enjoyed both of them very much and would go back there in a heartbeat.

We knew there would be lots to see and sacrificed sleeping in on a Saturday morning to be out our door by 7am.   Since Miyajima was more difficult to get to, we decided to do that first, which meant buying lots of tickets and making lots of connections (from our subway, to the bullet train, then transferring to a regular train, and finally onto a ferry).  Fortunately everything went smoothly and we were in Miyajima by 10am.  We even managed to figure out the lockers at the train station so we could store our luggage while we explored the island.

Close-up of Doe & Fawn

Doe & Fawn

While we were on the ferry, Robert was busy snapping pictures as I stood anxiously watching the torii gate approach.  After seeing so many pictures of this torii gate, it was hard to believe we were actually here.  The island (Istukushima) is very beautiful…it’s steep and very forested.  The island is still considered sacred and pure in the Shinto religion.  In the past, commoners were not allowed on the island, and all other visitors had to go thru the torii gate before stepping on the island.  There are still some strict rules in place…no cutting down trees, no births and no deaths.  The highest point on the island is Mt Misen which rises up directly behind the torii gate to a height of about 530 meters (1,750 feet).  We had originally planned to take the ropeway up to the top, but Robert said his back was feeling fine, so we decided we would hike it instead.

Robert eating the Maple Leaf

Snacking on Maple Leaves – yum!

Everyone visiting the island had smiles on their face….(you’d think you were at Disneyland).   Tame deer roamed the streets, there were little chariots carrying happy couples around, and lots of quaint little shops.  There were also lots of statues, lanterns, and traditional Edo period Japanese buildings.  We didn’t have a map, so we just followed the crowds and wondered around – looking at everything.  Occasionally we’d see signs, pointing us in the direction of Mt Misen.  We also saw signs telling us not to pet or feed the deer, but the Japanese sign must have said something different because they were doing both constantly.

We visited the pagoda, walked around the “1,000 tatami mat” pavilion (Senjokaku) and explored the back streets of the village.  We found a shop making the little maple shaped cakes (momiji manju), so we stopped and sampled their two flavors and had some tea.  We eventually ended up at the main temple, Daisho, and spent a good hour taking photos and enjoying the scenery.  Surprisingly, it wasn’t very crowded and some leaves were starting to change so we really took our time there.  However, I knew it was getting late and we still had our hike to do, so we continued on our way.

View near top

View from Mt Misen

Our hike up Mt. Misen (Mount Stair-Miser would be a better name) began near the temple.  I don’t know if anyone has ever counted how many stairs there are, but I’d venture to guess there were at least a couple thousand (it took us nearly an hour to climb it).  Some sections were so steep that it was very obvious there had been some recent landslides and extensive repair work had been made.  At times I thought the stairs would never end.  The views just kept getting better and better, so we kept going.  We even had a fantastic view of the torii gate at low tide…all the people walking up to it looked like ants.  The trail followed a stream/waterfall most of the way up.  It was very shady and there were only a handful of other hikers.  Thank goodness it was a cool day because I was extremely thirsty (I didn’t have my water bottle and there were none of those famous vending machines along the way).  The views from the top were spectacular.

YakiKaki !

Grilled Oysters!

I would have loved to hang out there had we had picnic provisions, but since we were both extremely thirsty and hungry, and neither of us can tolerate walking down steep downhills anymore (darn knees!), we decided to take the Ropeway down.   After a 15 minute ride we were back amongst the masses and the vending machines!  The line to go up was incredibly long so we now know never to do that.  Robert was craving some grilled oysters (yakikaki), so we waited about 15 minutes for our delicious appetizer and then moved on to find some anago-buri (eel on rice) for a late lunch.  Again, (true to the Japanese tradition), we waited in another line at the restaurant.  The anago-buri was amazingly delicious (oishii!).  Sunset was approaching, so we figured we should make our way back to the ferry…passing the torii gate one last time, and delaying our departure as long as we could.

We went back to Hiroshima, retrieved our luggage and checked into our hotel.  Fairly exhausted from our long day, we relaxed for a while, shared a beer and opted for a carousel sushi dinner.   We got up early so we could experience the Peace Park with as few visitors as possible.  It ended up being another beautiful day.  We walked along the river to the A-bomb Dome – which is quite impressive indeed.  It seems frozen in time.  Stray cats run around it just like in some dystopian tale.  It’s hard to write about our experience there, as a worthy description of both the Dome and Peace Park cannot be captured in words.  It’s something that must be experienced first-hand.

A-bomb dome View

A-bomb Dome

The visit to Hiroshima completed a full circle for us.  Some 20+ years ago, we visited the museum in Los Alamos, New Mexico – the birthplace of the A-bomb.  I still remember that day vividly.  It was an incredibly weighted experience (just as watching Schindler’s list was).  It rendered both of us speechless and depressed for hours.  It is shocking to realize the kind of destruction man is capable of.  We have since then also visited Nagasaki (the site of the 2nd nuclear bomb dropping), and we live relatively close to where the 2nd bomb was initially intended to be dropped.

As horrible as that part of history was, it’s nowhere near the devastating nuclear capacity we have today.  The recent events in northern Japan is a constant reminder of how dangerous a game we are playing.

At the end of the day, I left Hiroshima feeling hopeful – because I didn’t like the thought of it ending any other way.

Return to Dazaifu

Walking around Dazaifu

Temple Doors

Last time we were in Dazaifu it was brutally hot….so hot we couldn’t think straight, much less enjoy the area.  In fact, we spent most of the time in the National Museum just to stay cool and sane.  We’ve been wanting to go back for a while and since the weather was perfect and another flea market was taking place, we decided to venture out that way again.

Our first stop was Komyozenji Temple which we didn’t see last time.  It was nice and quiet.  We almost had the whole place to ourselves.  It actually looked and felt like winter had arrived at this temple…even the old floorboards were cold.  And I’m not sure when those monks are suppose to rake their gardens, but the back was covered in leaves with no gravel visible.  We took our time in there trying to soak up all the calm and quiet we could before heading into the bustling flea market.  We both admired the simple, yet beautiful woodwork throughout the building.  Eventually, we made our way back into the crowds and checked out the market merchandise.  There were plenty of choices if you wanted fabric, kimonos, obis or jewelry.  There were a couple of pottery stalls and a few with antiques, but we didn’t see anything we couldn’t live without.

Rice fields

Rice Fields

We decided during lunch to finish our day with a walkabout.  The town has lots of places to see, so we thought we’d knock a few of them out by following the recommended historical walk through town on one of the back roads.  Dazaifu is an incredibly pretty and very relaxing little town.  On our walk, we saw lots of little side roads that lead up into the hillside…beckoning us for a future visit.  We visited a couple of other temples and then spent some time hanging out at the Dazaifu government ruins (which is more of a park) enjoying the wonderful weather and watching families play.  Robert enjoyed listening to a few kids practicing on their trombones.  Amazingly there were still some very colorful fall spots along the base of the hills.  We eventually boarded the SLOW train back to Tenjin and picked up a few more macaroons.  They should last us until maybe Monday. 🙂

Exploring Downtown Hakata

Enoteca Wine Shop

Wine at the Enoteca

A couple of weeks ago we took the subway to the Hakata area of downtown to check out the Kawabata Shopping Arcade, Kushida Shrine, and some temples we missed the last time we were there. Hakata is a suburb of Fukuoka, but it used to be a separate city.  A river runs through the center of downtown, and Hakata is basically on the east side, whereas Fukuoka is on the west side.

My favorite find of the day was the Enoteca in the basement of Eeny Meeny Miny Mo (yes, there is actually a department store with that name).  It has a great selection of French and Italian wines.  Had it not been 10 o’clock in the morning and our first stop, we probably would have depleted our savings there.  We weren’t going to tote around wine all day, so we passed on any purchases, but at least I know where it is.

Finally made it to the shrine...what a relief!

Interesting Fountain at Kushida Shrine

We crossed over the street and walked through the covered shopping arcade glancing in all the shops.  This is the oldest shopping area in the city.  There is a good variety of merchandise in there as well as some yummy food stalls.  I’ll have to come back some rainy day to do some damage shopping.   At the end of this street was an entrance to Kushida Shrine (which was founded in 757 when Hakata was designated as the base of trade between China and Japan).  On the grounds is a gigantic ginkgo tree (which is so large it is has several supports holding it up).  It is believed to be about 1,000 years old.  I like how some of these really old shires have an eery feeling about them, and I enjoy reading about their history and seeing all the artifacts associated with them.  I think that is why I don’t tire of visiting them.  There were lots of interesting things to see here, but Robert was especially amused by the fountain of the little boy peeing.

Shofukuji Temple

Shofukuji Temple Grounds

Next, we were off to find the ‘grove of temples’.  It’s actually called the Teramachi Area on my Fukuoka Now map.  It was about a 10 minute walk through a fairly busy part of the city, but once we got back there, the streets were narrow and it was exceptionally quiet.  The first temple we came to was Shofukuji Temple, which is Japan’s oldest Zen temple and the place where tea was first introduced in Japan.  The old twisty pines were kind of cool, but I was a bit disappointed that the actual temple was not open to the public.  The second temple, Tochoji Temple, houses the largest sitting statue of Buddha made out of wood (40 feet tall).  We couldn’t take a picture of it (as photos are prohibited),  but it was worth the visit.  The third temple, Jotenji,  is the birthplace of udon and soba noodles.  We never made it to Jotenji because (ironically) we were starving and thus headed back into town to get a bite to eat (and buy lots of those macaroons Robert fell in love with the last time we were there).  Those macaroons by the way…are long gone. : (

Road Trip to Itoshima

Raizan Sennyoji Daihyoin Temple

Raizan Sennyoji Daihyoin Temple

One of the veteran teachers at FIS offered to take a few of us on a road trip to a temple in Itoshima, and we wasted no time taking him up the offer.  It’s great when the locals offer to show you around their town.  They know the best spots – and they are usually not the tourist spots.

Itoshima is a peninsula 20-25 minutes drive south of Fukuoka.  The local train skirts the area, and there is bus service to a few key spots, but a vehicle is really the best way around. It was drizzling rain this morning and we hoped that it would help keep the crowds away.  On the way there we took the scenic drive, which included a quick stop at a smaller shrine, over a mountain range, and along many back roads until we got to Raisan Sennyoji Daihihouin temple.

The two main attractions at the temple are the 16 foot buddha with 11 faces and 1,000 hands, and the 400-year old maple tree in the front garden.  The colors on the grounds of the temple were amazing…occasionally bordering on surreal.  Pictures cannot do this place justice.  In addition to enjoying the temple grounds and buildings, we also attended our first Buddhist prayer session (Robert even thought it was cool).  The elderly Japanese in the room took it very serious…folding their hands, and chanting & singing along with the monk who pounded on a drum.

Our Barbecue with Oysters

Our Barbecue – with Oysters!

I think we were the most excited about the next part of the trip….eating at the oyster shack on the beach.  We left the temple, passed through the town of Maebaru, and made it to the coast.  We then drove along some narrow back roads and eventually made it to the local fishing docks which had 5-10 large party-style tents with colorful signs on the outside. We picked a tent and headed inside. There was a large rough timber table with two BBQ grills inset into it – perfect for our group of seven.  A lady came and took our order and before we knew it we had ten pounds of fresh oysters, two large squid, two brined fish and five scallops in the shell on our table ready to be barbecued…by us.  We also had a nice selection of beverages that we had purchased at the grocery store on the way…the makings for a perfect afternoon. The food was even better than we had imagined – and we had imagined good food.  We will go back there soon, even if it means taking a train, a bus and long walk to get there!

The Reclining Buddha

Day Trip to Kidonanzoin

Nanzoin Temple Area

When it’s as beautiful as it was today, we have to get out and do something.  And after a two week hiatus (recovering from Hong Kong), we were ready to start exploring some more.  Today’s adventure took us on a train ride about 20 minutes east of the city – into a pretty little mountainous area.  After a little confusion trying to figure out where to buy our tickets at the main station in Hakata, it was actually very easy getting to Kidonanzoin.   To our pleasant surprise we ended up no where near suburbia.  I absolutely love these small little town stations that barely have anything around them.  And as a bonus, Nanzoin Temple was literally right across the road (although you couldn’t see it from the station), up a small river canyon, so it was easy to find too.

Day Trip to Kidonanzoin

Stone Men

We had a wonderful time walking around the grounds viewing all the different lanterns, statues, temples, ponds and caves.  The leaves had just started changing colors and there weren’t many people there so it was an incredibly peaceful and relaxing way to spend the early afternoon.  We weren’t in any kind of hurry, so we took our time and spent a couple hours just exploring.  I have to say that I really loved looking at all the little stone men statues the most.  Everyone of them was different and each one had so much detail.  It was like I was looking at a miniature audience frozen in time.  When I’m not in a hurry, I notice lots of little things…like lanterns with moss and grass growing on them, the beautiful rock work, the turtles and trout in the ponds, all the little waterfalls and all the different species of flora and fauna.  It was a kick to see some of the statues wearing bright yellow and orange beanies on their heads and a few with bibs like they were going to eat lobster or something.  I wonder if the locals do that to keep them from getting cold.  Only one statue seemed a little out of place there….a huge colorful mad warrior at the far end of the little courtyard.  I’m not sure what purpose he serves, but I’m sure he’s there for a good reason.

Day Trip to Kidonanzoin

Face of the Big Reclining Buddha

We finally made our way up to where the big Buddha lay.  To our disappointment it was mostly covered in scaffolding.  Fortunately the head was still visable and it’s sheer size was still impressive.  After peaking through the side, it was very obvious that this cleaning job desperately needs to be done, and we figured we could always come back to see how well it cleans up.  We each enjoyed a yummy mixed green tea/vanilla ice cream cone and then headed back toward the station.  I’m sure there was much more to investigate in these hills as we saw lots of trails leading off to somewhere, but I was getting hungry and wanted to get back downtown to get a bite to eat and do a bit of shopping.

Trips like this just make me want to get on more trains and venture farther and farther away….