Thailand

Bangkok

The word “overwhelming” comes to mind when trying to describe Bangkok, and not in a bad way. There is so much to see, to taste and to think about that the city might give one a culture (and heat) shock!

The morning after I arrived in Bangkok, I walked from my hotel to a sidewalk restaurant and had a breakfast of fried rice and egg. It was excellent and invigorating with the right amount of chili to wake me up and give me strength to face the multitude of crowds that I encountered next at the entrance of Wat Phra Kaew and the Royal Palace.

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Ornaments at Wat Phra Kaew

Many many tour groups had lined up to get into the temple and, for a minute, I considered not going inside and heading back to the same breakfast stall for another serving of rice and some more relaxation. However, I persisted, stood in line for my tickets and walked into a stunning area that was covered in fantastic paintings, ornaments and sculptures. Given the number of people, it was hard to navigate the space and I sat on a step and read through the description in my guidebook for some, well, guidance.

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Mural detail, Wat Phra Kaew

Wat Phra Kaew is absolutely stunning; the buildings are beautiful and highly ornamented and the walls all around are covered in highly detailed paintings with motifs from the story of Rama and Sita. There is so much to see that one can easily spend hours just looking at the paintings. A great feature is that golden colors are incorporated into the paintings, such that they glow from a distant in the light, giving them a magical quality that is hard to describe.

The most sacred sight in the temple is the Jade Buddha. There are many stories and legends that surround this holy image and the room in which it is housed is full of praying pilgrims.

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Grand Palace, building with European body and Thai-style roofs

After spending a few hours in the temple I moved to the Grande Palace, which is used only for very special occasions such as coronations or royal funerals. The most interesting building for me was a large place that was built entirely in a European style but with Thai style roofs. The story being that it was designed in Europe but once the building was near to being finished the king was convinced to incorporate Thai elements into its architecture. Thus, giving it a final Thai touch.

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Animated story at Museum Siam

After visiting Wat Phra Kaew, I went into a small museum, Museum Siam, that was air-conditioned, full of interactive displays about the culture and history of Thailand, and specifically Bangkok, and provided a nice respite from the heat.

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Thai Coffees are to die for!

After this break, I had a nice Thai coffee and headed for the second temple on my schedule, the Wat Pho. This temple was much more chilled out than the first one and I found the atmosphere and many Buddha statues there relaxing. Among the statues in this temple were some Western looking characters that the guide explained might have been inspired by Marco Polo!

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Marco Polo as temple guardian?

As I walked around the temple, I saw a small room with the oldest inscriptions that describe the principles of Thai massage. This temple is believed to be the first place where this art and technique started to be taught and, therefore, has immense historical importance.

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Thai massage tablet

Given this significance, I decided to go into an on-site massage clinic and try a massage by an expert practitioner. I entered a big hall with neatly placed massage mats on the floor and many people getting Thai massages that looked more like partner Yoga poses to me. A couple of very old monks went ahead of me to get a massage. I was paired up with a polite young man and for an hour he pressed pressure points and pulled and pushed on my limbs. At times it was pretty painful but afterwards I felt much more relaxed and, how to say, fluid in my body!

After the massage, I took a commuter boat ride across the Chao Phraya River; the afternoon views were beautiful and I was starting to feel tired. As I was walking back to my hotel, I came across a university cafeteria and had a tasty salad there. People are very fond of having many small meals throughout the day in this part of the world and I had decided to follow suit!

As I walked back to my hotel, I came across a riverside park where a very energetic and small Asian lady with a big speaker system was giving group workout instructions to a similarly energetic and enthusiastic group of middle aged Asian ladies. At the back of the group an older European gentleman who looked like Bukowski in a sleeveless shirt and shorts was also following the instructions with a serious expression on his face.

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Many strange things can be had on Khao San Road

After getting back to the hotel and having a few lethargic resting hours, I decided to go for a little walk on the legendary Khao San Road.

The Khao San Road is legendary among travelers (especially backpackers and hippies) in Asia and … rightly so! It is a wild street full of travelers of all kinds, tourists, vagabonds, local hip Thais and everything in between walking through a street that offers many forms of (legal) worldly pleasures, from mouth-watering food (although definitely not authentic) to all kinds of drinks (and gases, laughing gas was apparently on order too!) to all kinds of BBQ’d creepy crawlies (e.g., worms, scorpions and cockroaches)! I walked down the street a couple of times and listened to the many cover bands (including an excellent Nirvana cover band) from the street and then walked back to my hotel for a sound night sleep.

In my second day in Bangkok, I continued my exploration with the usual theme of temples, museum and food. I visited Wat Saket, which is perched high on top of a hill overlooking Bangkok and has been there way before the skyscrapers started to scrape the sky!

I also visited an excellent museum called the Jim Thompson House. This is the former house of an American-born expat who was fascinated in Thai culture and single-handedly revived an appreciation for Thai silk though advocating for it New York fashion shows.

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Spirit House

Mr. Thompson had build his house in the original Thai style and had gathered together a very nice and eclectic collection of antiques from around the world. Among the many interesting objects in his house were a pair of astrology drawings that predicted a dangerous time for him when he turns 61. In fact, he disappeared without a trace that year when he was on an expedition in Malaysia! During the tour, I found out that it is a Thai tradition to make when a house is made, an altar be erected for the spirits who used to dwell in the land so they can move there and be happy. I saw many of these small spirit houses throughout my trip.

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Lights of Soi Cowboy

I continued with a walk in Chinatown where bird nest soup and (unfortunately) shark fin soup were advertised on shop windows. I ended my Bangkok tour by a compulsory walk through the infamous Soi Cowboy, aka the Brightest Street in Bangkok! Apparently, the name of this street comes from a retired American airman who opened one of the first gogo-bars here in the 1970s and used to wear a cowboy hat! As it was mid-week, this street was not super busy but still many girls in scant clothing were standing in the street and trying to talk to groups of walking men.

Once I exited the surprisingly short street, I was surprised to see a group of young Persian men sitting on a nearby platform and listening to one of their friends singing a Persian song, “yar-e man…”. With this nostalgic voice in my ears and the glow of the lights in my eyes, I thought about all the lonely men, from American soldiers to European and Middle Eastern tourists and everyone in between, who have walked these streets. And the many women whose lives somehow became entangled with the Brightest Street in Bangkok.

Chiang Mai

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Temple at night

The Northern town of Chiang Mai, a city close to the border with Myanmar, provides a nice relief from the heat and crowds of Bangkok. Many travelers who are interested in outdoor activities or visiting hill tribes use Chiang Mai (or its smaller neighbor Chiang Rai) as a base. Being a backpacker and tourist haven provides ample amenities for the weary traveler but can sometimes be a bit overwhelming. Chiang Mai was famously featured in the Chinese slapstick comedy blockbuster, Lost in Thailand, which prompted a lot of Chinese tourists to visit it in the last few years.

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Temple in Chiang Mai

I started my visit with exploring some of Chiang Mai many exquisite temples which are within easy walking distance from each other and each have unique features. Temples here have a different style from Bangkok and are often made from wood. The architecture and ornaments are breathtaking. In my humble opinion, the carvings at one of these temples, the Wat Buppharam, were the most exquisite. Paradoxically, this temple also included a bizarre Donald Duck statue among the traditional artifacts!

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Collection of artifacts at Wat Buppharam

Vibrant night markets are another great feature of Chiang Mai. On weekends endless rows of sellers present craft works, art pieces, food and everything-in-between to a slow river of flowing people. During these nightly walks, I tried some of the tastiest curries I’ve ever had. They were served in thin plastic bags, were piping hot (both temperature and spice heat) and absolutely delicious! I remember sitting beside the road with a couple of bags of fiery curry mixed with fragrant rice, and burning with joy!

 

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Curry heaven

This experience reminded me of one of my friend’s remark that in Thailand, much attention has been paid to worldly pleasures from some of the best foods and drinks to excellent massages (including one involving small fish!).

 

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Fish massage

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Animals in Chiang Mai zoo

The closest mountain range to Chiang Mai is Doi Suthep Pui National Park. Rather than a tranquil sanctuary, the park is home to many sights including the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple that overlooks the city of Chiang Mai, a couple of hill tribe villages, the Chiagn Mai zoo and many other attractions. I spend half a day exploring the zoo and a few hours at the temple. The animals in the zoo were quite fun to see (even despite their lethargic state given the humidity and heat!). A fun activity in the park involved paying a small fee to feed a variety of animals from emus and elephants to tigers and lions!

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Ska band Chiang Mai

One night I decided to check out the nightlife scene in Chiang Mai. Sitting on a patio in a backpacker bar, I met two unlikely friends, a truck driver from Australia and an insurance broker from San Francisco. We were soon joined by a firefighter from Korea and a big group of German travelers. Together, we checked out a surprisingly awesome jazz joint called, the North Gate Jazz Club, a cheesy outdoor dance floor called, Zoe in Yellow, a really nice live ska bar (that I don’t know the name of), and finally a slightly sketchy after-hours spot called, Spicy. This last place was closed down at 1:30 am, which left many a party goers in despair. But that’s a half-hour past the official close time. Anyways, I didn’t go out much on this trip and seeing the several venues in one night was kind of a treat! The next day, I grabbed a Thai omelette from a family restaurant and followed it by a special treat: the most delicious mango rice plate ever! Time to say goodbye to Thailand!

 

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Yummy mango rice!

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Singapore

The multicultural city-state of Singapore provided me with a gentle entrance into Asia. Arriving at 5 am at the Changi International Airport, I took the efficient and clean metro train into town and walked into the financial heart of the city (which reminded me of Shanghai and Vancouver). A mix of well-dressed Asian, Indian and European people were walking to work with coffees, teas and other multicolored drinks in their hands.

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Marina Bay

After dropping off my luggage at a hostel on the waterfront, I went for a long walk around town. I changed some money in a small center full of money changers, called Change Alley, grabbed a strong traditional coffee mixed with concentrated milk and started walking to Chinatown.

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Singapore Chinatown

As it turned out, this was the first of many Chinatowns and Little Indias that I visited during my trip in Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia. I find it interesting (and humbling) that these neighborhoods in South East Asia have been around much longer than our modern notions of globalization and multiculturalism became such fads.

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Mosque in Singapore

It was great to see Taoist and Buddhist temples, Muslim mosques and Hindu temples sit next to each other. I visited an interesting temple, the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, that houses (you guessed it!) one of Buddha’s teeth in a golden shrine. The temple also had a number of very detailed wax models of senior monks in meditation poses.

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Wax model of meditation master

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Buddha Statue in the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple

Walking around Singapore, one runs into amazing buildings that are often combined with or inspired by themes from nature. Famous examples include the durian-shaped Esplanade, and, of course, the stunning Gardens by the Bay.

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Gardens by the Bay, Night and Day

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Durian-Shaped Esplanade Building

Other amazing buildings include the Marina Sands Resort that looks like a building with a ship on top (a tribute to Noah?!) and the Park Royal hotel.

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Park Royal Hotel

Other fun things to spot around town are tasteful uses of color in normal buildings:

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Colorful building

… and sculptures by some surprisingly famous people including, Dali and Botero!

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Dali and Botero sculptures

In Singapore, I visited several excellent museums and galleries. My favorite was the National Gallery of Singapore that is housed in the former Supreme Court Building and the City Hall. The site has historical significance, as it is the place where Japan surrendered to the Allies during WWII. The art in this museum was exquisite and ranged from meditations on nature by Chinese master Wu Guanzhong to refreshingly political and social art by a range of artists from Southeast Asia.

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Painting by Wu Guanzhong

Other interesting museums that I visited included, the Asian Civilizations Museum, with treasures from different corners of Asia (including Iran); and, the National Museum, which provides a nice overview of Singapore’s history (including a fascinating and dark account of its occupation by Japan during WWII). One of the things that I saw a lot of in Singapore was an interesting use of digital media including projection mapping around town, including at the i Light Marina Bay festival on the waterfront and in the National Museum.

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Projection Mapping at the National Museum

The most fascinating modern art piece I saw, however, was at the Changi International Airport: an amazing kinetic sculpture, called Kinetic Rain, by the German design firm ART+COM. I had heard about this work at the Design & Emotion Conference in Bogota before, but seeing it first hand was amazing.

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Kinetic Rain

I was pretty jet-lagged during most of my stay in Singapore, so I would get sleepy pretty early and also get up early. On one of these early mornings, I took a bus to the famous Singapore Zoo. Despite the heat and humidity, it was a fascinating trip and I saw some stunning animals. Some highlights was a crazy busy baboon colony (with some very naughty monkeys!); a man performing energy healing on an orangutan; a fascinating animal called Malayan Tapir, whose upper lip and nose are connected (!), and, finally, the Proboscis Monkey, a monkey with a stunningly large nose and bloated belly full of enzymes and bacteria that might explode if the monkey eats too much sugary fruits!

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Energy-Healing with Orangutan

The food in Singapore is fascinating and is a festival of Chinese, Malay, Indian, Thai and Singaporean tastes. I particularly enjoyed visiting traditional food courts, called Hawker centers, where you can try a variety of dishes from local family-run stalls for reasonable prices. Some amazing foods I tried were a spicy laksa soup, a magnificent fish head curry and a stunning chili crab!

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Fish head curry

This last dish was so deliciously hot that it almost destroyed my tongue and I could not feel it for about half an hour. Needless to say, I still highly recommend it!

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Chili Crab

Singapore has long been a trade center in Asia and a meeting place between West and East and this spirit still pervades. I walked through the financial section that funds the city many times and was reminded that the city’s heartbeat revolves around finance and commerce. A lot of the stunning buildings, beautiful light shows and fashionable events felt like pats on the back for the success of the city-state and its residents as a whole. Also, a pat for surviving in the most expensive city in the world!

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Am I being watched?

At the end of my stay, I had mixed feelings about Singapore: while it was easy to travel there (e.g., I imagine it’s an excellent place to travel with children), and it has good culinary, cultural and artistic offerings, I found it over-organized and a bit stifling. I had a feeling I was constantly being watched (the many security cameras did not help) and needed to behave. Despite the diversity, there seemed to be a clear path of “success” to be followed. I was ready to move to a more wild and open space. A feeling that was perfectly rewarded by my next stop: Thailand!