We arrived after 9pm into the Bangkok Airport, which is super easy to navigate through. We got local money from the ATM while waiting for our luggage, and were on the sky train heading into the city center within a half hour. We got to our small hotel near the Hua Lamphong train station entirely on public transportation.
For our first morning outing, we walked to Chinatown, which is located close to our hotel, and visited Wat Traimit (photo, temple), which houses the world’s biggest solid gold Buddha statue, standing 9 feet tall and weighing 5.5 tons in gold (photo, golden Buddha). There were a lot of local temple goers chanting, praying, and getting blessings from the monks. We continued wandering the maze-like alleys of Chinatown (photo, street scene), where birds’ nests and shark fins are among the most popular dishes on offer, whether in restaurants as the top items on their menu, or in the dry form sold in various herb or grocery stores. There are other traditional Chinese remedies being sold, as well as the typical New Year offering items. We dug into some chicken rice, cold coconut, and green agar-agar shreds with crushed ice (a heaven sent in the hot afternoon). We got back to our hotel and took a nap as the locals do to escape the heat. In the evening we went out to find a local club, "Raintree" to hear some folk songs from the Communist Insurgency Era of the 1960s while enjoying cashew chicken and squid. On the way there, we transferred subway to sky train at an elevated station facing a square between two big buildings. The top five floors of one building are turned into a giant 3 dimensional screen running colorful ads like a TV show, and on the stage between buildings a Thai rap band performed to fans cheering loudly below the stage. We stayed late at the Raintree, so going home we took a very reasonably priced taxi ride back.
Day 2 saw us up early, and we were joined by our sister and niece. We went to nearby Hua Lamphong train station’s food court, where half a dozen stalls sell their specialties. The food is authentic and good Thai. We walked over to River City and wandered around the various piers, finally identifying the one where we could embark on a Chao Phraya river taxi up the river to the Grand Palace -- the best way to commute to the old town.
As it was New Year’s Eve, hordes of Thais jammed the grounds of the Royal Palace, tourists are encouraged to visit in the afternoon. We decided to take a walking tour of the old town Walk, hitting Wat Pho first. The temple was built in the 17th century, the oldest temple in Bangkok and older than the city itself. The reclining Buddha, at 150 feet long and 45 feet tall, is the largest of its kind in the world (photo, Buddha). The magnificent stupas and chedis are ornate, colorful, varied and very creative in design (photo, chedi). Thai roofs are long and spiraling, giving an elegant and tapering line with colorful tiles forming unique patterns. We walked towards the palace entrance, stopping at roadside food stalls, pointing out to the vendors what we wanted to eat, and enjoyed a relaxing lunch in the shady lawn. We continued our old-town walk, passing a monument with three double-headed white elephants holding a giant lotus flower (photo, monument), some religious artifact shops and the tall legendary swing outside Wat Suthat. Wat Suthat is a Buddhist temple with Brahman priests. We saw people kneeling down and walking on their knees to receive blessings from the priests. The preparation for the New Year's evening prayer was well underway, and thousands of cotton threads were forming a gigantic spider web that covered the entire ground, with thousands of thread knots hanging down. We later found out from the TV coverage that each thread is wrapped around the neck of a worshipper. There were thousands of them kneeling on the ground, quite a scene from the TV helicopter camera.
As afternoon progressed, it was getting hotter and we were getting tired, so we squeezed into a tuk-tuk and paid a premium price to get back to the palace. The entrance fee for locals is zero and for foreigners is 400 BHT, about $13 USD. Being here on New Year's Eve means we were surrounded by locals and other tourists and could not move without bumping into someone. The chedis are magnificent (photo, golden chedi). Wat Pra Kaew on the palace grounds houses the famous Emerald Buddha everyone want to pay respects to. The statue itself seems quite small, made of dark green jade, sitting on a high-up alter. We toured around the palace grounds to see the rest of the function halls and the palace itself, which is an elaborate Italian style building designed by an English architect with a Thai style roof (so-called Thai Crown), and it was the only building we saw that was not shining with bright color of red ruby and blue gem. The architectures on the palace ground were truly amazing and frankly quite saturating (photo, Royal Palace).
Our last stop for the day was to be Wat Arun, across the other side of the Chao Phraya river. A short ferry ride took us there in the late afternoon. The center is the prominent Prang (tower) of 250 feet (photo, tower), which can be ascended by steep stairs to about 2/3 of its height. We climbed up the Prang (photo, stairway) and found a wrap-around yellow banner where people were writing down their New Year wishes. We enjoyed an amazing bird's eye view of the city at sunset -- Bangkok glistening with Buddha towers and grace. All together, it was a successful outing in the capital city.
New Year's Day we enjoyed a 12-hour "express" train ride in a chilly air-conditioned car north to Chiang Mai. The Thai express train service is modeled after a budget airline where a service lady with a poker face gave us snacks, water, lunch and more snacks for the ride. A blue-shirted cleaning boy constantly swept up and down the aisle. The scenery changed from urban to suburban, then to pretty countryside, from flat farmland to rolling hills, with rivers and lakes in sight. The air conditioning was so strong we had to dress in multiple layers. Barbara and her sister yakked away in Chinese while the uncle and niece discussed schoolwork, religion and politics. We plan to buy our return train tickets upon our arrival to Chiang Mai, but, alas, none of our debit cards were able to get cash out of the station ATM, and the sleepers are sold out for the day we want to return. We had just enough money on hand to buy the sitting-in class train tickets, with enough left to hire a Songthaew -- a pick-up truck with the bed covered and 2 row of benches installed for people to sit in. The vehicle reminded Barbara and her sister of the original kindergarten mini tuk-tuk they knew from their childhood in China. We arrived at AOI Garden House, a lovely compound composed with 5 or 6 wooden houses inside the old city (a square mile as we were later told) wall, near the elephant gate. We ate dinner close to the gate, obtained some water and snacks from the nearby Seven-Eleven store. On the way back to the house, we looked in at the North Gate Jazz Co-op club where a jam session was in progress. Some Caucasian and black guys are among the jammers and the club was so crowded the overflow took up bench seating right in the street.
Next day Richard and Barbara got up early and walked the neighborhood a bit. We rented 2 bikes from an old lady operating her rental business in front of her door with a few bikes parked. $50 BHT per bike per day, no ID or deposit needed. We rode back to the house and had some breakfast under a shady tree. Joined by our sister and niece, we set out to our adventure of the city. We visited a half dozen wats, some of them giant and glamorous and some simple and humble, including Wat Dubphai. Without a single exception according to our observation, the gate of the temple was always facing east. We noticed the monks are doing their blessings to the worshippers, sometimes the entire family, with water splashing towards them and a white cotton thread tied to their wrists. We noticed people leave offerings of incense, and flowers, and also daily household items such as cleaning supplies, robes, hygiene products, etc. all in gift wrapped packages. We realized these were for the monks to live on. Out of all the temples there, Wat Phra Singh is the biggest, with its unique Lion Buddha, the classic Lanna architecture and a large shady lawn, where vendors doing their trade and food stalls dishing out delicious noodles, sushi, shumais, sweets and icy drinks. There is a carnival atmosphere with lots of souvenir vendors, including one character who sells his Thai flutes and CD recordings. The temple grounds feature a lot of trees with wise sayings carved on a piece of wood and attached to each tree. The lovely remaining city wall surrounded by the moat provided some cool breeze when we rode our bikes home. We tried to book a massage but apparently were too late to get the same day service. So we went out to dinner and got some fruit on the way home.
Day 2 in Chiang Mai was devoted to a full day tour. We joined a 20-plus tour group driving out of the town to the north. After the bus ride, we boarded bamboo barges downstream (photo, Ping River cruise). We saw elephants taking passengers across the river, and visited a "longneck" Lisu village (photo, Lisu woman). We watched women weaving Thai silk into beautiful scarves. One of the two exciting events is to watch the elephant show, where the trained giants haul logs, play football, perform acrobat moves and paint pictures. Barbara was also fortunate to sit on two elephants whose noses formed a perfect swing (photo, elephant seat). The next exciting event is after a quick lunch, we rode an ox cart to the hill tribe village to be subject to another shopping opportunity, then the riding of the elephants. Our mount was named Phanping, a giant 26-year-old bull with beautiful tusks. He was gentle, yet playful, and insisted on getting his snacks of sugar canes and bananas after taking us across the river (photo, Phanping). His long nose folded up to our seats begging for the fruits. The last stop was at an orchid and butterfly farm where we enjoyed and took a lot of pictures of the beautiful flowers and the colorful butterflies (photo, butterfly). Our guide Nene was pretty, or handsome, and super nice. Back in Chiang Mai, we immediately got on our bicycles after the tour and had a riding adventure in attempt to find a Vietnamese buffet restaurant we had read about. We got lost, of course, and ended up in the night market which was also a flower market. Eventually we reached the restaurant and had unlimited amount of pho. On the way back home, we tried to find a message and failed to find immediate service.
Our final day in Chiang Mai, we rode bikes out from the old city in the morning in search of the Chiang Mai National Museum. The weather is cooler than Bangkok but still quite warm. The girls gave up while Richard pushed on. Three girls ended up having some tasty lunch back home and even got a take-away for Richard, who was successful finding and enjoying the museum, which suffered some damage from the summer storms. The lady of the house we stayed, Aoi helped us arranged a half day tour on a Songthaew with two Australian college girls traveling on their own for the first time. They were brave and polite. We first went to Doi Suthep, a steep mountain range west of the city to visit Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (photo, gold chedi), a very special place for people of Chiang Mai. The king Ku Na at the end of the 14th century wanted to find a temple to enshrine some magic relics. He put the traveling shrine on the back of an elephant and watched where the sacred animal would find the place for the holiest temple. The elephant climbed mountain Doi Suthep, circled around and died at the top of the hill hinting this was the right place. Thus the temple ground ever since. There is the biggest gong Barbara has ever seen (photo, big gong). We got to the train station just in time to catch our overnight train to Ayutthaya.
Arriving in sunny and warm Ayutthaya, we found a city on an island surrounded by rivers. We took a ferry from the train station across the river and found our hotel in a short walking distance. We got some breakfast first, then checked our luggage with the hotel and rented bikes to see the city (photo, on bikes). Ayutthaya was once the dazzling and dynamic center of Siam, for about 400 years from mid-14th century to late 18th century, when it was sacked and looted by the Burmese army. The Ayutthaya historical park is the ruins of the former capital of the Kingdom. It is the site of mass murder, rape and enslavement of Siamese people and destruction of the Ayutthaya city, its art and buildings by the Burmese in 1767, which is recognized internationally as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ruins are somewhat reminiscent of Angor Wat (photo, Wat Chaiwatthanaram). We took a ferry across the Chao Phraya river to Wat Phanan Choeng (photo, Phanan Choeng), where we witnessed the changing of robes ceremony for the giant gold Buddha image there. Near the ferry terminal, we saw some school girls in their uniforms setting some fish free, as the good deed offering (photo, merit). We took an evening tour of the Wat Chai Wattanaram, amazing lighting of the ruins. Our camera did not do their justice.
Next Morning, we took the early train to get back to Bangkok. This was our last chance to catch the biggest weekend open air market in Thailand, with 9000 stalls in 30 different sections. You can find anything here, from knockoffs to household items, to cloth and food. We spent a big chunk of the day there browsing, eating and drinking. We came back to our familiar hotel at the end of the day tired. Three girls were determined to find the Thai massage and we went to the business district, where there seemed to have a dozen parlors on the single street. We chose one that looks bright and pleasant, with three Thai ladies working on us with their hands, arms, legs and feet. It was so good that did not want to get out of them after one hour. What a great way to end our Thai experience.