Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Chiang Mai Night Markets

Chiang Mai's night bazaar is pretty good compared with other night markets around Thailand. Sure they sell all the same items from t-shirts to handbags, to pirated DVDs, and a wide range of souvenirs but there are more hill tribe handicrafts here, as well as jewelry.

As with night markets anywhere else in Southeast Asia, bargaining for the best price is a must.
All the seasoned vendors know exactly what the lowest price is that you can possibly get for an item so it's your job to try to get as close to that figure as possible. If you find something you like, decide what it's worth to you and bargain in good faith. If you're allowed to walk away after a bargaining session your price was probably too low.

Just in case you missed the Fish Stomach Soup sign, it's listed twice.
As with any shopping area, there are always places to get something to eat. The night market in
Chiang Mai is no different and the choices are abundant. Yes, you can get Pad Thai and just about any other Thai dish you have in mind, and there's Pizza, Pasta, Hamburgers, Korean, Japanese, and whatever else you may have a craving for.
And of course there are soap carvings perfectly packaged in decorative containers to be transported back home. I've never seen anyone actually purchasing them but since they're being sold just about anywhere tourist converge in Thailand, I'm sure they do sell.

One thing to stay away from are the "knock-off" watches. Sure, you may have always wanted that Rolex around your arm but they're almost guaranteed to stop working by the time you board your plane home.

Chiang Mai also has a very popular Sunday market which takes place from dusk to around midnight every Sunday from the Tapae Gate, down the main street inside the walls of the Old City, to Wat Pra Singh (the most significant temple in the Old City).
You'll find some items here that you wouldn't find at the Night Bazaar since it's geared more towards the locals, and the prices reflect it. It's also a great place to get street food snacks and bargain massages if you get tired of fighting your way through the crowds inching their way down the streets.

Street vendors converge at different spots throughout the city each night of the week during the dry season. Besides the Sunday walking street, there's a Saturday walking street beginning just outside the Chauk Puak gate on the western side of the old city.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Street Food ?

Street food in Thailand IS safe to eat, and most of it is delicious.
It's a great opportunity to try things you'll never have a chance to try back home.

Assorted grubs and bugs.

Holy Mackerel. Just to prove that not everything tastes like chicken. Go ahead. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Yes, there's always The Sizzler if you have a weak constitution.

Just help yourself to the items you actually want to eat.

Thailand time:

More Chaing Mai Temples and Dogs

Temple dogs.

The streets of Chiang Mai appear to be overrun with dogs. Spaying or neutering isn't a custom here and "street dogs" can usually get enough to eat. There are some fortunate ones that end up taking refuge on the grounds of the temples. Here they're fed and live generally unbothered.
Oh, what a peaceful life.

Wat Lok Molee

Wat Suan Dok environs. These chedis contain the remains of the royal family of Chaing Mai from the Lanna Dynasty period.

Wat Phra Singh has the most complete version of Lanna style architecture and houses Phra Singh Buddha relics. It is considered to be Chiang Mai's most important and sacred Buddha image.

Wat Suan Dok's super Chedi. Said to contain a relic of the Buddha himself.

Wat Suan Dok is also a temple where you can learn more about Buddhism, through their "monk chat" program. At certain times, and on certain days of the week, you can talk with a Buddhist monk. This program is in part a chance for monks to practice their English skills, so don't expect a fluent conversation. They are all good humored though and actually enjoy is as much as you do.
More temples of Chaing Mai and their guardian dogs.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Images of Chaing Mai

Chiang Mai is a city that is finely tuned for tourists. Many of the city's sights are within walking distance from any accommodation close the the center of town. If you get tired, there's always a tuk-tuk waiting to take you anywhere you please. Always negotiate your fare before hopping on. Metered taxis are rare in town but red mini-trucks outfitted with bench seats (songthaews) are everywhere. Just flag one down and let the driver know where you want to go. If he already has passengers, and your destination is in his general direction, he'll let you know how much it is to take you to your destination.
Chiang Mai is considered the gateway city to the rest of northern Thailand and attracts a wide range of tourists. Backpackers are everywhere, and guesthouses are plentiful inside the walls of the Old City. Mid to upper end accommodations are scattered around the city with most around the night bazaar.
There is a wide range of activities for eager tourists. Everything from elephant camps, butterfly sanctuaries, hiking trips in the nearby parks, orchid farms, snake farms, a monkey center, a tiger park, a night safari, cooking schools, day trips to the hill tribes, as well as activities some people cannot do without on holiday such as white-water rafting, bungy jumping, and time at the shooting range.
But come first to Chiang Mai to see the temples and markets, and enjoy the food and hospitality of the Thai people.
High season is November through March, with things peaking during the year end holidays when the days are mild and relatively dry. The warmest months are March through May.

Thais love fried just about anything. Take your pick.

Dogs are plentiful on the streets of Chaing Mai. Unfortunately, many are in pretty sad shape in comparison to dogs back home. There are several groups raising money to help the dogs, and cats in the city, to provide them with basic vaccinations.

Sunday Market at Tapae Plaza.
Buddha image on the Chedi of Wat Pan On, one of the most beautifully restored temples inside the Old City walls.

Alan at Wat PraSingh.
Flower offerings at the flower market.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Getting comfortable in Chaing Mai

Our first hotel in Chaing Mai, the Tapae Place Hotel. Not a bad place for around $25 a night including breakfast. Not a fancy buffet breakfast but eggs, toast, a razor-thin slice of ham, the tiniest hot dog you ever saw, mystery juice, and coffee or tea.

The room is decent although the furniture is a bit worn.

We decided to change to a small guest house after a few days for about the same price, although no breakfast included. The family-run Sri-Pat Guest House is a bit more quiet, with slightly smaller rooms but spotless and well run.

We'll spend Christmas and New Years here before heading to Chaing Rai.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Back in Bangkok

Five days after our scheduled arrival date, flights resumed into Bangkok and we finally began our trip. We arrived on a flight, about two-thirds full, from Tokyo to a pretty quiet airport in Bangkok.

The anti-government protesters who barricaded themselves in the main terminal for almost a week were all gone. They even claim to have cleaned-up after themselves before they left. Indeed there were no visible signs left from the protests. All went well, according to the protesters. Only the body of one protester was found stuffed in a closet at the airport.

Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport is quite an efficient looking airport, although I think it does lack some passenger conveniences.
I do think it's one of the coldest airports I've been to. It's all full of metal and glass which adds to the coldness but why does the air conditioner have to be turned up so high? All the seats in the waiting areas are hard, metalic, and cold as well.

We missed arriving for the king's birthday but the city is still decked-out with enormous birthday displays for the beloved king.
The streets of Bangkok are all quiet at the moment. For the first time in over three years, the daily anti-government, and sometimes pro-government demonstrations are all gone. Threats of more unrest are made daily if groups are not happy with what will happen next.
In the meantime, everything else seems to be back to normal. Or as normal as it could be in this "global economic downturn".

Bangkok, Thailand time:

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Seven Years Since Tibet

We have traveled to Lhasa, the capital city of Tibet, twice on our round the world journeys. It is one of the most interesting destinations on earth for a variety of reasons: a colorful culture that was, until recently, unspoiled by the outside world; exquisite Buddhist temples and fabled monasteries; the country’s distinctive natural and architectural beauty; and perhaps the most devout people on the planet. Sadly, thought, many of the treasures that make this wondrous place extraordinary are quickly disappearing.
Perched on a high mountain plateau, Lhasa is the administrative capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region in the People’s Republic of China, and was the traditional seat of power for the Dalai Lama until the Chinese invasion in 1959. Lhasa is to Tibetan Buddhists, what Rome is to Catholics. Lhasa literally means “place of the gods,” and is the myth-shrouded, holy center of Tibet, with a population of just under 300,000.
On our first visit, even the drive from Gongkar Airport to Lhasa turned into an interesting adventure. The road winds over moonscape-like valleys where ox and yak graze, barley crops sway in the wind, and squat, stone, and mud farmhouses dot the countryside. Each house, had a set of yak horns set over the door frames for protection, and suspended from poles and outcroppings of rock were strings of prayer flags, the five-color flags symbolize sky (blue), clouds (white), fire (red), water (green) and earth (yellow).

Our driver stopped at one farm where we toured the house and were served yak-butter tea (which tastes exactly like it sounds: buttery and yakky). It was a single room house that embraced a courtyard filled with livestock and hand-made, wooden farm tools. Dotting the whitewashed, courtyard walls were paddies of cow and yak dung, drying in the strong sun. Living at or above tree-line, farmers use dry dung as fuel to cook meals and warm their houses. With the help of our interpreter, we had an opportunity to talk to the farmers. What we found was consistent with almost everyone we met in Lhasa: living in the cold, high desert, hemmed in by two mountain ranges of the world’s highest peaks, have made the Tibetan people austere, pragmatic, tenacious independent, and pious, yet they are also taciturn and shy.

Lhasa has been called the Rooftop of the World, perched on a desert plateau 12,000 feet above sea level and surrounded by 18,000-foot mountain peaks. After checking into to the only tourist-class hotel in the city for foreigners at the time, a Holiday Inn of all things, we decided to get our bearings by walking from our hotel to the center of town. We hadn’t really felt the altitude until, walking on level streets, we could only stroll half a block before needing to sit down and catch our breath. Any activity and we immediately felt the effects of the altitude. Even with little activity, I experienced a low-grade headache for the first week that painkillers had no effect on.
The local open-air market in the center of town was typical of markets all over Asia except that the hand-made handicrafts were all of an exceptional quality. As we wandered through the stalls, we were mesmerized by lines of burgundy-robed monks chanting ancient sutras, devout pilgrims prostrating themselves full length on the ground and mumbling prayers, and an army of dark-headed, smiling kids selling everything from chewing gum and prayer wheels, to lavishly engraved swords.

The holiest ground in Tibet is the Jokhang temple sitting smack in the middle of Barkor Square in the city center. Before entering the Jokhang, we fell in with the procession of pilgrims that perambulate clockwise around the building. Three revolutions brought us to a standstill before the Jokhang’s broad front doors. We had to gingerly step between dozens of prostrating pilgrims before entering the temple to see the Jowo Sakyamuni, Tibet’s most revered image. It’s an impressive statue with a magnificent crown of gold, coral and turquoise. As impressive as the statue is, it was the building itself that most impressed me, with carved wooden ceilings and beautiful murals. I was also impressed with the almost circus-like atmosphere created by the chanting monks and praying worshipers.

Next we visited the crown jewel of Tibet, the Potala Palace, home of the Dalai Lama until the Chinese invasion in 1959. While other Tibetan monuments are more significant in religious terms, the Potala Palace is the most enduring symbol of Tibet. The palace was one of the few monasteries that was protected by the Chinese Army during the invasion, and also during the Cultural Revolution. As a result, most of its treasures remain intact and virtually unchanged since the 17th century. The palace stands thirteen stories tall, and boasts of over a 1,000 rooms and chapels with 10,000 shrines and 200,000 images of the Buddha.
Our guide led us through a maze of room were the remains of previous Dalai Lama’s were enshrined in fabulous stupas, to an upper floor where the tomb of the 13th Dalai Lama rests. This 46 foot high stupa contains priceless jewels and a ton of solid gold. Devotional offerings in that room included elephant tusks from India, porcelain lions, vases and a pagoda made with over 200,000 pearls. It was in this chapel that we were granted an audience with a monk, who spoke to us about the dharma, blessed us with a prayer, and slipped silk scarves around our necks.

On our first visit to Lhasa, the Palace was still a place of worship and was visited daily by hundreds of pilgrims. The Potala’s dim rooms and hallways, many of which are lit only by butter-lamps, evoke the surreal mysticism associated with Tibetan Buddhism. Rough-clad pilgrims crowded into the chapels, pouring Yak butter from thermoses into huge bowls to feed the lamps, which in turn illuminate the massive Buddha images. As impressive as these statues and shrines are, it was the awed, devout faces of the pilgrims gazing up at them that overwhelmed me.
On our second visit to Lhasa, just two years later, the Potala Palace had been converted into a museum by the Chinese government. Gone were the monks, gone were the pilgrims, gone were many of the treasures. This symbol of Tibetan Buddhism had been reduced to a tourist trap, and more recently, it had so many visitors each day that to protect the site, entrance was limited to 2,500 tourists per day. This was typical of many other changes that we saw, most of which, to my way of thinking, spelled the end of a culture.
On that second visit, we found that landmarks had been demolished and twisting lanes were replaced by broad boulevards. Most of the local street vendors selling food were no longer there, but there were several new AAA approved restaurants and cafes along the main boulevard. For and five story steel and glass office building dotted the main roads and there were three additional tourist hotels with more under construction. What once had been a shabby, yet colorful, shopping district was filled with clean and modern new stores. The monks and pilgrims were forced to worship at a few temples inside the city and lesser monasteries outside the city limits.
The cause of all this change, this modernization, was the Chinese government moving in hoards of Han and Hui Chinese from other provinces of China. It was clear the government meant to quell the rebellions Tibetans by diluting them in a sea of loyal Chinese people. That influx of outsiders rapidly increased after the opening of the railway that now connects Beijing with Lhasa. The exiled Tibetan government and reputable Western newspapers assert that Tibetans are now a minority in Lhasa.
I’m not suggesting this is bad for Lhasa. Certainly the influx of Chinese has brought new wealth and prosperity to the city’s population, and living conditions have dramatically improved for much of the residents. But make no mistake, the Tibetan people, at least the ones in Lhasa, are indeed losing their culture and what they hold most dear.

Lhasa, China time
*Memories: Yak Butter Tea, Oxygen tanks in the room, and pinched by a monk.
*Visits: Summer 1995, 1997