Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Chiang Mai

The major city of northern Thailand, population 170k in the central city, with maybe a million or so in the city environs, 315m or so in elevation, centred around the 'old town', which is a city founded in 1296 by King Men Rai the Great, and made somewhat hazardous by the smoke from bush fires in neighbouring Myanmar and Laos (Thailand already having burnt most of its forests). (The neighbouring province of Tak ("Tark"), which abuts Myanmar, is near to declaring a disaster, due to the smoke.) This inner city is surrounded by a wall (not in the best of condition, I doubt if it could withstand assault as it is, and a moat). ...And, the inner city is where the action is...

Chang Mai bus station.
Chang is a tourist city, there are lots of tourists, lots of hotels, lots of guest houses, lots of tasty restaurants, and plenty of things to do. I have heard Chang described as boring, nothing to do. To those people I say "you are so wrong!"  I found the inner city to be vibrant. In these two or so square kilometres are where most of the tourist sights exists, a mix of temples, museums, gallerys, and ancient ruins. These are found along a mix of small streets and alleyways, set admidst small shops and guesthouses. A few days to explore all, if you are interested in seeing all.

The bug museum
An interesting painting

Bugs for your delectation

Outside the city are a host of more energetic activities. These include 'treks'. Treks on elephant back for a day or three, treks through the jungle——treks to somewhere. You can abseil, visit Laos, raft down a river. All great fun.


Most of the tourists I saw were younger westerners, there is a 'community' here of western backpackers and so forth. I saw only a handful of older folk (such as myself), however, I am given to understand that there are such people, but they live outside the city and tend to be permanent residents, retirees with a Thai wife, who have escaped the rat-race 'back home', and live comfortably on their retirement income. I was also told that more than a few Bangkokians have moved north to Chang Mai and purchased houses, also for the quiiet life, escape the rat-race of the Big Mango.

Facility wise, Chang Mai has it all. There is an electronics/computer mall, several large chains and lots of smaller shops. There lie outside the inner city. Fairly, anything you want you can get here.

Guardians of the Buddha.
The Buddha.

Wat Phantao

A disadvantage is that the train and bus stations are aways out of the town, ~5kms or so. This requires a trip into the city, at the conclusion of a long and exhausting journey. You are at the mercy of the local drivers (capitalism sux). I suggest paying 60-80 baht for a trip from either into the city. You will be told 150b or 100b, but try and keep the price reasonable. Its a matter of respect. If you feel so inclined, as I do, tip your driver when you reach your destination. A driver in Thailand does not make a large living, a tip of even 20 baht can help.

There are lots of good vegetarian restaurants in the city. One is 'Mai Kaidees', which is a branch of the same in Bangkok. The same menu in fact. It is small, seating for maybe 30 tops, but the food was the same high quality. Another I stumbled across is 'Mingkwan Vegetarian Food'. This is a Thai place, so the food is spicy, but tasty and cheap ($1 for lots of food and one bottle of water—beat that!).

Information at your fingertips.

A few points of note:

The City Pillar Shrine. There is one in this city, as there is in most provincial capitals, however, surprisingly, ... it is closed to the public. It is only open a few days a year, on special occasions (the 8th and 9th lunar months). I was told, by a local driver (these guys know everything, or at least a convincing facsimile, which reflects local beliefs), that the shrine contained a buried pillar, 1m deep, but inside the shrine, at ground level is a Buddha statue. There is some deep history here. Also, surprisingly, there are signs at the shrine saying 'women not allowed inside'. This is a departure from the norm. Normally women are equally welcome to a shrine as are men. Apparently, it is the Buddha image that restricts women.

The Chiang Mai pillar is named, Sao Inthakin. It is 1m high, and composed of bricks. There is a long and complicated history here. 
 Putting these two facts together leads me to conclude that this shrine plays a different role in Chang Mai society than do other such shrines I have seen. As this shrine is located at the eastern entrance to the major Wat in the city and province, Wat Chedi Luang, named after the large and imposing central chedi ('jed-E").

City Shrine building.

One other site I like to spot in a provincial capital is the Provincial Hall. These are the governmental admin centres of each province. Usually, they are found near the city centre, but there is a growing tendency to build new and towering structures a few kilometres outside the city. This tends to be a cluster of impressive architecture, as a myriad of government departments cluster around the larger.

The Hall of Chang Mai is maybe 10kms north of the city. A large, new, and impressive building, surrounded by others such as the Ministry of Finance, the prosecutors office, and many other such agencies. Of interest there is a commemorative geographical marker here. These are apex truncated square pyramids, ~1m on a side, with their geogrpahical coordinates marked, to five decimals. I have come across a number of these in my travels in the Land of Smiles. Interesting objects.

Geo marker.

The former Hall lies within the old city. It is now a museum, the 'Chang Mai City Cultural Centre' (worth a visit). Formerly, prior to 1984, this building—which is substantial and impressive in itself—had been a royal residence as well as the Provincial Hall. Prior to this a Buddhist wat resided here.

Chang Mai City Cultural Centre

Three Kings Statue.
King Mengrai, the founder of Chiang Mai; his contemporary and good friend King Ramkamhaeng of Sukothai; and King Ngam Muang of Payao.
These three gentlemen founded (legendarily) Chiang Mai.

There is lots and lots and lots of accomm in the inner city, however, to me it seems a little on the pricy side for what you get. Maybe 30% more than a less touristy city. Maybe I am being picky? However, it seems to me, that too many young people are willing to pay more for a seemingly 'cool' guest house, which is cool, but in reality does not have all the convenience you would expect from a similarily priced accomm elsewhere. Or maybe I am being picky?

Some thoughts to ponder:

Saturday, 18 February 2012

The Sukhothai Kingdom—Si Satchanalai City

Information plaque for the first temple.

The first wat you will see.
Wat Phra Si Rattana Maha That Chaliang.

As described in my blog post on the Sukhothai Kingdom, this former Kingdom is survived both by the modern Kingdom of Thailand, and by three archaeological sites, which together form a UNESCO World Heritage site. These three sites are the former three, major cities of this ancient Kingdom. The first and largest, the ancient city of Sukhothai, was described previously, here I will describe the second city of the Kingdom, the city of Si Satchanalai ("C-sack-chan-a-lie"). This site is officially termed the "Si Satchanalai Historical Park".

Si Satchanalai is found in the north of the province of Sukhothai. Reaching Si Satchanalai is easy enough. Buses regularly leave from the Sukhothai city bus terminal for the ~50kms, ~70min trip to the site of Si Satchanalai, this is along the route, Bangkok to Chang Rai, with the next major stop being the provincial capital of Uttaradit. If you are unsure of what is happening, just keep repeating "C-sack-chan-a-lie", and the bus attendant will help you out.

I did notice in the Sukhothai bus station, several people in white shirts wandering through the station giving advice to tourists. At first I thought these were touts for tour companies, but I later determined that these people were in the employ of the local government. They will approach, ask where you where you want to go, and then direct you to the appropriate ticket counter or render some other assistance. Not a greatly needed service, it is easy enough to find a ticket agent, but it is a friendly gesture.

Few people visit Si Sat. While Sukhothai is a frequent stop, made by the more adventurist tourists—those who want go get away from the megapolis of Bangkok, Si Sat is a much quieter and less frequented tourist destination. Plan to spend a half day here.

Upon arrival you will be exit your bus outside a arched entranceway, which leads into the southern side of the park. The actual city is ~3kms distant, thus hiring a bike, from one of the vendors (30 baht), at the gate area, is a good idea. Food and drink is also on sale.

Enter the Park, start peddling, down a narrow street, over a suspension bridge, and you will reach a Park entrance. Here 20 baht will buy you admission, and a map of the Park. At this entry there is a sizeable temple, which will give you a taste of what is to come.

Again, I suggest a hat, sunglasses, and lots of water. It gets hot.

From here continue northwards, you will pass a few more smaller temples, continue over a modern road (I found the route not well sign posted, but it is hard to get lost, just keep peddeling, you will get somewhere.). You will next reach a rest and recreation area. A street filled with antique stores, and vendors of food and drink. If you do buy keep in mind, that, as far as I understand, the export of Buddha images, both old and new, from Thailand is illegal.

Along the route is a small museum, the 'Wat Chom Chuen Archaeological Site Museum'. The museum houses an actual archaeolgoical site associated with the Wat (which the museum abuts), you can walk over and through the diggings—which consists largely of deceased bodies. Things also got a little tricky here ticket wise. I was told by a delightful Museum staffer that I needed to pay 100 baht (versus 40 for a Thai person, fair enough) to visit the Museum, which I did. Then also that I would need to pay another 200 bath to visit the rest of the old city, which I also paid. In total 320 baht ($10). Apparently, the original 20 baht gets you into the first gate, but not into the Park proper. Anywho...

In addition to the bones and fees, the museum had a small selection of books for sale. One proved to be an excellent find, a description of the entire World Heritage Site, "World Heritage: Sukhothai, Si Satchanalai and Kamphaeng Phet". Nine thousand copies were published in 2008 by the Thai 'Fine Arts Department'. For 200 baht ($6) an excellent book. I will read this at the first opportunity and then post it to Australia where it will pass into the safe keeping of my brother, along with all the other material I send home.

Proceeding past the restaurants you will reach the Park proper. This is the old city of Si Satchanalai. It is surrounded by a low, stone wall. The enclosed area is an approximate rectangle running along the Yom River, covering ~1 square kilometre of territory.

In this area there are perhaps a half dozen larger temples, and two dozen or more smaller. Most, but not all have descriptive signs. All of the temples show signs of restoration. What is to be seen at each temple are the foundation stones, some of the roof support pillars, a few levels of the temple walls, plus surviving Buddha images at the centre of the temples. Usually, one or more chedi are to be found at each temple site.  One of the temples, Wat Khao (mountain) Suwankhiri, is on a hill top and requires a climb via steps to reach. A little tiring, as is some of the hilly peddling, but doable. Keep well hydrated.

The temples here resemble those in Sukhothai old city, but, in my judgement, there are not only fewer, but also none that showed a distinctive Cambodian style of architecture. This suggests that these buildings were built towards the middle period of the Sukhothai Kingdom.

During my visit there were perhaps a dozen foreigners in the park, but at one time, as I was exploring Wat Chan Lom, one of the larger in the Park, a bus load of middle-aged Thai women arrived, who immediately starting climbing all over the Wat, completely ignoring the 'do not climb' on the Wat signs. Anyway...

Not related to the Park as such, but something that caught my eye while travelling to the Si Satchanalai was the construction of a City Pillar Shrine in the district of Sawankhalok, to the south of the townsite. A City Pillar Shrine of Thailand is a central government sanctioned, provincial level construction, however, these smaller shrines are created by local organisations, and as I was told, sometimes funded directly by wealthier individuals. I was not able to disembark from the bus to examine this shrine in detail, but from what I could see the shrine was nearing completion. The location is: 17.3032 99.8334. Interestingly, the city of Sukhothai does not have a City Pillar Shrine as such.

The shrine.

Sign in front of the shrine.

If you are in this region for a few days make the time to visit Si Sat, it is worth it just to enjoy the quiet beauty of the Park. Then take a look at the these ancient temples, and even imagine what this now quiet 'ghost' city was like five centuries ago. Filled with busy people, screaming wives, noisy children, the march of history.

Road side entrance.

Keep peddling.

At the first entrance.
As always, things for sale.

Park map.
Your entry is at the far right red marked temple.

Wat Phra Si Rattana Maha That Chaliang.
This is the first temple you will see upon entry.

Bodhisattva at temple entrance.

Approach. Prang at rear of temple.

The Buddha. 
Symbol inside prang.

View to the top.

The Museum.

Model of human remains from the
nearby archaeological site.

Wat Chom Chuen, next to the Museum.

Wat Chom Chuen.
Add caption
Roads in the park. Quiet and empty.

As you can see, the Wat has been restored.

Wat Khao Suwankhiri. It is larger than it looks.
The photograph does not convey the quietness of the setting.
The depth of ruins here, nor the relative size of the chedi.
Impossible to take an unobstructed photo,
showing the surrounds of the chedi.