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Archive for May, 2009

Day 12: Sacred Mountain May 29

We have flown north to the ancient cultural and religious center of Chiang Mai. Driving up the slopes of the Soi Duthrep mountain, we arrive at the Wat Phra That. The dramatic sacred snake staircase leading up to this famous mountaintop temple is unique in Thailand and instantly recognizable from photos in travel magazines and guidebooks.


Standing at the base of the naga staircase, scanning the long  ascent to the top, the thought of climbing all 306 steps can be daunting. Consider this your Stair Master workout for today or just slip around to the right, take the funicula and glide upward for a small fee. I’ll tell you a little secret. The descent is actually much easier so let’s compromise. We’ll ride up in the tram and walk down after our visit.


The original chedi is at the heart of the temple complex. You will see visitors making offerings of flowers, candles and incense after they have walked around its base three times. Inside the prayer hall, worshippers kneel in slient prayer or meditation. You may also line up to receive a blessing from a Buddhist monk.



On a clear day, the summit terrace offers views of the city below as well as the surrounding forest cloaking the mountain. Due to rapid expansion in recent years, Chiang Mai is contending with growth issues such as construction, rush hour traffic and pollution. Some days there is an industrial haze hovering over the city. Unfortunately, on this particular day, remnant smoke from forest fires also hung inthe air, obscuring the view.

You will feel a slight drop in temperature at this elevation which is a welcome relief from the tropical heat in the south. The climate in the north is temperate and very comfortable. In fact, you might want to have a light wrap or sweater handy for the evening.

Next we head farther up the mountain to visit a Hmong village.

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Day 11: Some Like It Hot May 27

Thai cuisine has gained worldwide popularity for its unique blend of flavors: sweet, sour, salty with fiery spice.  Dishes combine the best Asian ingredients with fragrant spices such as lemongrass, mint, cilantro, coconut or citrus and of course, ripe red or green chilis. These tasty concoctions are served over rice or noodles.

Some famous menu items include satay, appetizers of charbroiled chicken, beef or pork on bamboo skewers with a side dish of peanut sauce; tom yum, a hot and sour shrimp soup; pad thai, a noodle dish stir-fried with shrimp, chicken, eggs, bean sprouts topped with peanuts as a garnish; and various yellow, green or red vegetarian or meat curries.

This is not the time to be macho and ask for your meal to be prepared “Thai hot” unless you enjoy the sensation of a mouth on fire while sweat pours down your forehead onto your bright red face. They can provide as much heat as you can or cannot endure. The point is to enjoy ALL the flavors.



For dessert, coconut sticky rice is offered with slices of sweet juicy mango. Many other exotic tropical fruits are widely available. We are all familiar with naturally sweet pineapples, bananas, papaya and watermelon. You will also find guava, lychee, rambutan  and jackfruit. Mangosteen has a hard purple nut-like shell protecting the soft white delicate flesh inside. And pomelo is akin to grapefruit.


If you care to participate in the sensory experience of preparing and enjoying an authentic Thai meal with a Thai chef, there are 2 very famous cooking schools in Bangkok: the long-standing program at the Bangkok Oriental Hotel and another at the Blue Elephant Restaurant and Cooking School.

Whether you live to eat or eat to live, bon appetite my friends!

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Day 10: Flower Power May 22

Attention to detail. Everywhere I went I noticed this – in the adornments of temples and palaces, the intricate design elements of handicrafts, the dozens of tiny blossoms woven into a wristlet.


In a labyrinth of sidewalks inhabited by florists, I saw this again. On one side of the walkway, small individual store fronts and on the other individual trestle tables.


People concentrating on their handiwork within an explosion of beautiful and fragrant flowers, an overwhelming, almost dizzyingly abundant selection. This is the Bangkok Flower Market where you can buy a bouquet or an entire floral arrangement for a few (U.S.) dollars. A wristlet cost a mere 10 baht or approximately 30 cents.




 In Thailand, we were welcomed at the every hotel with a sweetly scented jasmine wristlet and I wore each one continuously. Flowers adorned public spaces and guests rooms in the hotels/resorts with their natural beauty. Of course, they were also purposely present in spas as well for their soothing aromatherapy properties.

We usually only give and receive flowers for special occasions. Bangkok city dwellers come here to buy flowers to brighten their urban apartments and homes,  flowers for offerings for their spirit houses, flowers for offerings at their neighborhood temples, flowers for someone special. Ah, the pure pleasure and power of these beautiful blossoms.

Being born on a tropical island, one of the things I miss most is tropical flowers. When I am in Tahiti, I wear them in my hair every single day. It feels entirely natural to me. Alas, not something I can indulge in Northern California.

If it had been earlier in the stay or a longer stay, I might have scooped up several bunches just for the sheer luxury of a hotel room filled with flowers, something that would be cost-prohibitive anywhere else. But we would be traveling north to Chang Mai the next day. Not to worry, there would be no shortage of flowers and other riches on the rest of this journey.

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Day 9: Tuk Tuk Trishaw May 20


thailand-t2-fam-1632After exiting past the palace guards, be prepared to be swarmed by an small army of street vendors, pushing postcards and souvenirs in your face.

You may want to consider purchasing a set of glossy postcards of the Grand Palace. I found it very challenging to take pictures amidst the throngs of people milling about. If you would prefer to walk around, taking in the sights and the information, without worrying about taking your own pictures, this is the perfect solution.

However, unless you ARE interested in buying these trinkets, do not engage them. Otherwise, they will pursue you relentlessly until you physically leave the area.

 Rather than travel back up the river by boat, we will entrust our lives to the drivers of the ubiquitous three wheeler vehicles known as tuk tuks. Their name is due to the distinctive sound made by their tiny engines /tuk tuk tuk tuk/.


These will provide a thrilling high speed ride through the crowded city streets to our next stop. It’s important to negotiate firmly with your driver regarding the fare before you embark. And make sure that you are very clear about your destination. Tuk tuk drivers are rather notorious for having arrangements with businesses to bring them new customers. You may find yourself on an unscheduled detour to a retail store such as jewelry shop or even a massage parlor, unless that was your intended destination.


Fortunately, our local guide has taken care of all these details for us. We will scoot through traffic to the Flower Market at a fair and reasonable price, laughing all the way and praying that we don’t get imto an accident in one of these tin cans on wheels.


It’s all part of the fun, excitement and danger! And it reminded me of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyland, except that it is in REAL traffic and cross traffic, not on safety rails.

The only time I would avoid this type of transportation is during rush hour traffic when being stuck directly behind large vehicle exhaust will make it very unpleasant.

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Day 8: Temple of the Emerald Buddha May 18

The Wat Phra Kaew, more commonly referred to as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha sits within the extensive Grand Palace complex. The temple actually consists of several buildings, pavillions and pagodas in the same way that the former royal palace is a series of buildings.  The small emerald buddha displayed on a high altar of gold within the main hall is in fact made of  jadeite and is one of the most revered in Thailand.

Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Temple of the Emerald Buddha




shoe racks outside temple

shoe racks outside temple

You will need to remove your shoes and hats and leave them outside in a designated area before entering  the prayer hall. Also refrain from talking or taking photos inside out of respect for others.
If you wish to sit on the floor, make sure the soles of your feet do not point to the sacred image of the Buddha.  The feet are considered the lowliest part of the body and this is considered highly insulting.

Note: I am trying out an alternate day schedule (Mon-Wed-Fri) this month (May) rather than the daily schedule (MTWTF) from the previous monthly tours (Feb-Mar-Apr). Let me know what you think.

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Day 7: The Grand Palace May 15

The Grand Palace in Bangkok is a fairly extensive historic, cultural and religious site. It is NOT the current residence of the Royal Family. Note the classical Thai style of architecture and the detailed and ornate embellishments.

I will let you enjoy a few select images from within the compound with a minimum of commentary since I am not a substitute for a knowledgeable local guide who can tell you about each structure in detail.

Grand Palace

Grand Palace

temple stupa (dome)

temple stupa (dome)

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Day 6: Clothing NOT Optional May 13

Despite the tropical heat and humidity, resist the urge to shed layers of clothing. Minimal attire may be appropriate at the beach but generally not in public. You will observe that local residents are rather conservative in this regard. Thai men wear collared shirts and long trousers and women are dressed modestly. Visitors may sport skimpy tops and shorts in tourist areas but this is not acceptable at sacred sites such as temples and palaces.

thailand-t2-fam-203Just past the guards, at the entrance to the Grand Palace grounds, you will see a board illustrating exactly what constitutes respectful clothing for visitors touring the extensive complex. Anyone with bare shoulders, exposed midriffs and bare legs will not be admitted.  I had read that knees also had to be covered. This was not quite correct. Ankle length pants or skirts are expected.

I thought I was prepared. The “fashion police” eyeball all visitors. I am tall and my capris were deemed not long enough so I had to rent a sarong. Apparently, this is an ongoing issue so they are ready with temporary fixes.

thailand-t2-fam-190There is also a measuring stick at the turnstile to double check length of garments. I didn’t pass this test either. A female attendant came over to assist me. We ended up tying the piece of fabric around my hips to get an extra inch or so.  Meanwhile, I was thinking about several full length garments back at the hotel in my suitcase that would have avoided this problem. I was becoming a little irritated and wondered if I would even get in.

I was finally approved to enter. So, here I am in my top and a borrowed bottom, layered over my own bottoms.  Only a hat, gloves and socks would have provided more complete coverage.

Once inside,  I did notice that these rules were NOT applied consistently.

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Day 5: Fish Feeding May 11

Let’s make a little detour on our way to the Grand Palace.  There are vendors along the river who sell loaves of bread for mere pennies. We can glide up in our boat, purchase a few and then circle back out to feed the fish.

Break off a small chunk of bread and dangle it over the surface of the water. Soon, hungry fat fish resembling catfish will leap up to snatch the morsel from your fingers. There’s quite a bit of frenzied thrashing about and churning up of murky water as they compete for their snack.


rice barge

rice barge


In terms of people feeding, there are a variety of restaurants dotted along the river for relaxed meals al fresco. It can also be interesting to sail on a restored Thai rice barge. These are available for day and evening excursions. The dinner cruise is a leisurely event with a delicious multi-course Thai meal and entertainment.


But now, we are on our way over to the most visited site in Thailand before it gets too hot and too crowded. I’m sure a convoy of large motor coaches have already arrived and spilled forth hundreds of other visitors this morning.

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Day 4: Temple of Dawn May 08


The glittering Wat  Arun or the Temple of Dawn is just down river and it shines golden in the sunlight, especially at dawn and dusk. Its towering spire or prang is the first part visible from a distance as you near the entire complex.

The population of Thailand is predominantly Thai (80%) and Buddhist (95%). Thousands of Buddhist temples in varying sizes and architectural styles can be seen throughout the country. However, each demonstrates the same attention to detail in ornate embellishments, dazzling prayer halls and multicolored statues that we see in Thai handicrafts such as embroidery, jewelery and carvings.

The temple grounds provide an oasis of tranquility that contrasts with the intense traffic and noise outside on roadways and the river way. If you choose to climb the steep and narrow steps, you will be rewarded with an excellent view of the nearby Grand Palace which is our next stop on today’s city sightseeing schedule. Just be aware that the way back down is more precarious than the ascent.

I will discuss another famous temple, the Doi Suthep, in Chang Mai in more detail as a fine example of northern Lanna style temple architecture.

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Day 3: A River Runs Through May 06



 Turning 180 degrees, we get a panoramic view of the s-shaped Chao Phraya River that runs through the bustling city of Bangkok. There is activity at all times of the day and night on this aquatic artery: commuter ferries, commercial transport, tourist boats, dinner cruises.

long tail boat

long tail boat

A long tail boat whisks you up the river at high speed past the ancient and the modern juxtaposed in this sprawling metropolis. High rises exist next to temples. The ride is fast and noisy but fun. Be prepared – you may also get a little backsplash regardless of the protective tarp. We will slow down to enter the network of side canals or klongs where people carry on their daily lives.


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