Thailand - Cities

March 2, 2011

 Chiang Mai

 We flew from Phuket to Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand, not far from the border with Laos and Myanmar (Burma). Our hotel, the Golden Cupids, was very nice, but a lot farther outside the center of the town than we had anticipated.

The main building of the Golden Cupids Hotel, Chiang Mai

The hotel pool area. Pleasant, if slightly run down, 

The owner and manager of the hotel, Pelle, and her granddaughter 

The namesake Golden Cupids

Although the hotel was a long way from the city, the hotel offered free rides into town, although you had to find you own way back. However, they treat all their guests like friends and we met several people (including an old school friend of Paul's !) who had visited before and keep coming back because of the hospitality.

 Part of the moat around the old city of Chiang Mai

Although Chiang Mai is a sprawling city, the old city still has the original moat and some of the original walls.

Chiang Mai has more temples than Bangkok, which is a much larger city. They can be very pretty, although to a non-buddhist, they all look very similar.

Typical images for Buddhist temples - the temple, the pagoda (the large gold roofed building) the main Buddha and various ornamental figures

Chiang Mai, like all Thai cities,  has some unusual modes of transport.

A Tuk Tuk (noisy, smelly and hot) and a Sawngthaew - a pickup with bench seats in the back. The tuk-tuk is a cheap taxi service, the sawngthaews run fixed routes but stop anywhere along their route, like a communal taxi.

Chiang Mai also has a history of handicrafts. A couple of examples are shown here:

These exquisite "Soap Flowers" were unique in Chiang Mai and quite remarkable in their artistry.

  Hand decorating umbrellas

The next morning we headed into the jungle about an hour outside of Chiang Mai. Our driver, Pop, took us to an elephant camp where for the next hour we rode an elephant through some amazing scenery. Our elephant kept stopping along the track to beg for bananas and would not move until he was fed. Blowing air at us through his trunk was a strong of an incentive for us to feed him. It's a good thing elephants don't have bad breath !

Riding an elephant in Chiang Mai

 Kris adds fuel to our elephant

The trail ended at the river which we crossed via a zip line. The cage was just big enough for two people but at the end of the line they did find us rather heavy when they had to pull the cage. Pop met us on the other side of the river and we hiked up a steep hill to a small waterfall in the jungle.

Kris was a little apprehensive about the zipline cage, but she went anyway

Paul and Pop walk up to the (almost) dry waterfall

  Pop encourages Paul to slide down a rocky slope into the pool below.

We head back to base camp on an inflatable raft through a series of rapids. Although it was the dry season, the rapids were more exciting than we had expected. Of course, we had left our cameras with Pop, because we didn't want to get them wet, so we don't have any pictures of the rapids, or the bamboo raft we used for the last part of our river trip.

Heading down river looking for rapids to shoot


Mae Hong Sorn 

A private tour was the easiest way for us to visit Mae Hong Sorn and Pai, two towns in mountains to the north of Chiang Mai that we wanted to visit. We felt comfortable with Pop after our "day of adventure", so we booked a three day/two night tour with him. The drive from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Sorn took five hours through fabulous mountain scenery. Our first stop along the road was at Wat Phrathat Sri Jom Thong - yes another temple!

 Wat Phrathat - a stop enroute to Mae Hong Sorn 

 Paul bangs the gong - it's supposed to bring good luck

We stopped again to see the Kaew Kermol Cave, which unlike most caves, has crystals instead of the usual stalactites and stalagmites. There were a couple of problems with the cave. They had tried to ventilate the cave, the ventilation system was very unsophisticated and the dirty air had made the crystals less than pristine. Now the ventilation system had been turned off, but the cave had no ventilation and it was hard to breathe at the bottom. On top of all that, they didn't allow photographs in the cave,so we can't show you what we saw.

Entrance to Kaew Komol Cave 

Our hotel in Mae Hong Sorn

Once we had checked in, the plan was to go to a nearby temple and watch the sun set, but Pop hadn't realized how early sunset took place and by the time we arrived, the sun had long gone ! Very frustrating. We had to settle for pictures of the temple in the fading light and a view of the city as it went dark.

The lights come on in the town below the temple

The pagodas at the temple glow in the fading light

 Pop explains to Kris how she can make an offering by placing a plant on the shrine

The next day, before leaving Mae Hong Sorn, we went to the local market for breakfast.

Kris and Pop wait for breakfast to be served

 Kris tucks in to her ground rice and vegetable breakfast

  Fish and flowers are just a couple of the many items on sale in the market

Outside the market, we ran into a parade. Pop said it was Sports Day at the local school

 The traditional dancer was pretty but we weren't quite sure about the significance of the "vegetable ladies"

We stopped at the Mae Hong Sorn temple on our way out.

The temple had a beautiful roof.    We followed local custom and tried "walking meditation" around the Pagoda

We left Mae Hong Sorn and picked up a boat to the Karen "long-neck" village. It was a pretty ride along the river.

Boats at the side of the river and our boat turns a corner

They are called the "long necks" because the women beautify themselves by wrapping brass rings around their necks. Girls start with one ring at age 5 and gradually add rings over the years.

One lady poses for a picture while another weaves using a very traditional loom

Kris tries the long neck "look" and makes friends with young Karen girl who wasn't part of the tribe using the rings

A Karen lady weaves leaves to make a roof covering and another smiles for the camera

A cute smile for the camera (notice the extended earlobes)

After leaving the village, we continued on our way to Pai, stopping at a pretty park, (The Fish Cave Park) which has a natural cave fed by a spring which attracts a lot of fish.

The Fish Cave Park and the fish that gather there to be fed by the visitors

Paul enjoys a break on a tree branch over the river

We arrived in Pai and checked into our hotel, the Baantawan Guest House and then went for a walk around the town.

The Baantawan Guest House and a vendor on the streets of Pai sells flutes he makes and plays himself

Kris checks out the many vendors along the main street of Pai

And this time we made it to the sunset BEFORE the sun went down

Next morning, Paul went to see if he could catch the sunrise. Although the sunrise was a none event, the early morning twilight was pretty

After leaving Pai, we stopped briefly at a Chinese Village (Pai has many Chinese refugees). The highlight was a vertical merry-go-round.

Not sure what the Chinese call this device but it seemed like fun.

World War II Memorial Bridge. Originally built by the Japanese but rebuilt a couple of times since

We also stopped at a National Park containing Geysers - Doi Phang National Park

Kris makes her way along the rather badly worn boardwalk to the Geysers

The Geysers blow steam and water high into the air

From the Geysers, we headed back to Chiang Mai airport and our last stop in Thailand, Bangkok.



We arrived in Bangkok in the early evening and quickly ran into a traffic jam - something we learned is very common. Fortunately, our hotel (the ON 8 Sukhumvit) was right next to a station for the very efficient Skytrain service and we quickly learned to plan our day based on locations served by the Skytrain.

Bangkok traffic is horrendous - sometimes not moving for 20 minutes. Fortunately, the modern Skytrain service is very efficient

Although it can be very crowded most of the time

Our first full day was spent at the Grand Palace. Actually, we only spent an hour at the palace, but it took us the rest of the day to get there and back. Long story !

Construction of The Grand Palace complex started in 1782 and consists of the royal residence and throne halls as well as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.  As you might expect, the buildings were magnificent but often the details were just as impressive.

A large Stupa covered in gold leaf and the Emerald Buddha inside the temple of the same name

The Emerald Buddha is actually made from a single block of jade and was discovered in Chiang Rai in 1434, so must be much older. It is clad in one of three seasonal costumes (summer, rainy season and winter) and the costume is changed in a ceremony presided over by the King.

Figures which are half monkey / half man protect a shrine

Around the Palace were galleries painted with scenes from the Ramakien and recently restored.

Painted scenes around the galleries

The Jim Thompson House

Next day, we visited the the Jim Thompson House. Jim Thompson was an American colonel, who came to Thailand at the very end of World War 2. He stayed on in Bangkok and single handed, revived the art of silk making and weaving. He built himself a beautiful traditional Thai house on a canal and was well liked and respected in Bangkok. Mysteriously, he disappeared in 1967 while visiting friends in Malaysia and his disapperance has never been explained.

The house, which was completed in 1959, is made up of six traditional Thai houses that were purchased from their original owners and made into one very unique home.


The drawing room where Jim would meet his guests and some of his wonderful Asian antiques

The main hallway of the house and the small but jungle-like garden

After leaving the mysteries of the Jim Thompson House behind, we went back the Palace complex to see the Vimanmek, the world's largest Golden Teakwood Mansion. It was built at the turn of the 19th century in very British style. Queen Victoria would have felt quite at home and indeed her portrait is hanging in one of the rooms. The top floor was the Kings' personal living quarters and the lower floors were ceremonial and  official rooms. Eventually, the King moved to a newer and more modern palace and now the building is used for official purposes only. There are no photographs allowed inside so we have just one picture of the front.

Kristine in front of the Vimanmek Mansion, at one time the home of the King

That night, we splashed out and had dinner at The Oriental Hotel, a classic hotel visited by Somerset Maugham, Rudyard Kipling and now by US ! The actual building was something of a disappointment as most of the original structure has gone. However, the location right on the riverbank with ships sailing right past us, was very evocative.

Dinner at The Oriental Hotel


Next day was shopping day and also a day to unwind a bit. The big malls in Bangkok (and we visited several) are huge and to a large extent, exactly the same as malls in the US and the UK, so they are OK if you want to buy the same stuff you could find at home, but pretty much without any character.

Fortunately, the street vendors and local markets have tons of character.

Markets and street stalls are busy from about 10:00am until 10:00pm when things start to close down

That evening, we went to see a show called "Calypso", a review staring "ladyboys" - men dressed as women and men who (now) ARE women. And then just to confuse us totally, on came very "obvious" men (hairy legs and bulges in all the right places) dressed in womens' underwear. All very confusing.

 The production values were pretty amateurish and VERY dated. All the music and singing was recorded and badly lip-sync'd, but the energy and the effort was very real. An odd experience, but worth the price of admission.

Boys or girls ?

So who are the boys and who are the girls ? We assume they are all (or were) boys at some time !

Our last stop of the evening was Nana Plaza, which is the center of the whole Sukhumvit "scene". A garish mix of neon, girly shows and bars - perhaps not the place for an old married couple ! We had a couple of beers and decided against watching any of the shows. A famous (or infamous) part of the Bangkok scene but not ours !

Nana Plaza - a nice place to make new friends - if you have the money !


 The Burma Death Railway

Our last full day in Bangkok (and in Thailand) was spent on a long private tour of the Burma Death Railway and in particular, The Bridge over the River Kwai (or Kwae as it's spelt locally) and Hellfire Pass, which is about 50 miles from the Kwai Bridge. The Burma Railway was built by the Japanese in in 1942 and 1943 between Thailand and Burma. The Japanese were trying to conquer India from Burma and needed a rail link from Thailand to supply their troops. Their engineers said it would take five years, but using Allied prisoners captured in Singapore and native labor recruited in Malaya and elsewhere, it was built in 18 months, at estimated cost of 106,000 lives - 16,000 Allied prisoners and 90,000 locals. Although the Allied prisoners kept accurate counts of their dead, the locals had no records and the number of their deaths is estimated.

Our first stop, the Kanchanaburi War Cemetary, where 7,800 Allied POW's are buried, mostly British and Dutch.

A strange Japanese truck which could run on rails or on the road

One of the original British engines actually used on the Burma Railway

 The actual Bridge over the River Kwai. The two central (square) spans are replacements installed after the war. The originals were destroyed by Allied bombing. The rounded spans are original from WWI

There are still several trains across the bridge every day, although the line ends about 60 miles after the Kwai Bridge. We caught the train and travelled for about ninety minutes before stopping for lunch.

The River Kwai Bridge (still in use today) and a sign for tourists with the River Kwai station behind

Crossing the River Kwai and the train runs through dense jungle just after leaving the bridge

 The jungle touches the train (a good reason to keep your head pulled in) 

Our travelling companions coming from Bangkok to spend the day at a waterfall

The same trestle bridge after we left the train. You can see the bridge extends all the way to the right of the picture

The train crosses a trestle bridge which has been re-built several times since the war, but follows the same path created by the POW's

After lunch, we rejoined our van and driver and continued on to the Hellfire Pass Museum. Hellfire Pass was a long cutting made through very hard rock using only manual labor and dynamite. At one point, the Japanese made the prisoners work around the clock and the pass (lit by oil lamps) was described by the prisoners as looking just like Hell itself  Which for them, of course, it was.

Hellfire Gorge from above and from inside the gorge. There is a small memorial on the left

Hellfire Gorge

Hellfire Gorge is now a quiet and rather pretty location - not unlike some railway lines in the US which have been converted to walking and bicycle tracks. Knowing the history and knowing how many men suffered and died here makes it all the more poignant. By the time we had climbed down into the gorge, we were hot, dirty and tired and we had still had a long drive back to Bangkok. I'm not sure we really spent as much time as we should to really appreciate the history place, but we both enjoyed the experience, nonetheless.

So about 4:00 pm (when the museum closed) we headed back to Bangkok, arriving at the hotel just after 7:00pm and the next day we left Bangkok by air,for our next stop, Phnom Penh in Cambodia.