Chiang Rai Tour – Wat Rong Khun

Just when we thought we couldn’t possibly handle another bloody temple, we arrived at this beauty. A temple like no other we had ever seen.

Wat Rong Khun. The White Temple.

Wat Rong Khun.
Wat Rong Khun.

Designed by Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, work on this temple began in 1996 and isn’t scheduled for completion until 2070. Kositpipat believes that designing and building this Buddhist temple will give him “immortal life”. When finished, the complex will feature nine buildings including the ubosot (chapel), pagoda, hermitage, crematorium, monastery hall, preaching hall, museum, pavilion and rest rooms.

The loos themselves are the shiniest, flashiest loos I’ve ever seen!

"The most elaborate dunny I have ever seen" - John. [Photo by John McCormack.]
“The most elaborate dunny I have ever seen” – John. [Photo by John McCormack.]
From afar, the temple is pristine white, glinting in the bright sunlight. As you get closer, the artist’s style and the temple’s unique features appear.

Wat Rong Khun.
Wat Rong Khun.

For example, this bloke:

Alien... at a Buddhist temple.
Predator… at a Buddhist temple.

Or this guy:

Hanging ornaments.
Hanging ornaments.

Kositpipat depicts the journey to happiness by overcoming cravings with a piece called “Hell”, which you must walk past on your way over the bridge to the ubosot. Hundreds of human hands reach up from what looks like hell, clawing at the air above. Some hands hold bowls, while other grab toward the sky. Some are making what looks like rude hand gestures.

"Hell".
“Hell”.

The inside of the ubosot is festooned with intricate, colourful murals on the walls. These are not the murals you’ll see at most Thai Buddhist temples, however. In addition to paintings of the Buddha smiling serenely down on you, you’ll find pictures of Star Wars droids, Superman and even planes crashing into the World Trade Center. If the Predator statue outside aren’t enough to weird you out, R2D2 sitting beside Buddha should do it for you.

Photos are not allowed inside the ubosot.
Photos are not allowed inside the ubosot.

Visitors to the temple can also contribute a silver leaf to part of the project. The leaves hang from archways and in metal ‘trees’ and according to Ae, once the artist has gathered enough, the leaves will be made into a Buddha. In true tourist style, we were all over this. Names, wishes and all.

Leaves hanging from an archway.
Leaves hanging from an archway.
Hanging my leaf on a tree.
Hanging my leaf on a tree.

More of Kositpipat’s work is displayed in a museum and art gallery within the complex. His paintings are bright and colourful, and very striking. Ae also introduced us to a great nothern Thailand dish – yellow noodles. Hot and spicy, with chunks of chicken swimming in a red broth with yellow noodles. A tiny bit too hot for me, but a delicious dish nonetheless! And you’ll have a real hard time finding it south of Chiang Mai.

Pat, John and I at Wat Rong Khun.
Pat, John and I at Wat Rong Khun.
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Chiang Rai Tour – Featuring Ae and Ehk!

A couple of days before Songkran kicked off, we set off on our three day tour of Chiang Rai, northern Thailand. Here, meet the new additions that turned our trio into a fivesome: our guide Ae and our driver Ehk, from Thailand Hilltribe Holidays.

Super chatty Ae spoke great English and was forever cracking jokes and having a laugh on our tour. He even taught us to swear in Thai. A keen fisherman, he’s eager to see us come back and join him on a fishing expedition.

Our guide, Ae.
Our guide, Ae.

Ehk was a bit quieter and only spoke a tiny bit of English, but he had a wicked sense of humour and would make jokes through Ae’s translations and cheeky hand signals. His dream job? To own an ice cream shop.

(L to R) John and Ehk clowning around.
(L to R) John and Ehk clowning around.

These guys were divine; we really couldn’t have asked for a better pair to take us on this tour!

Chiang Mai – Fishy foot spas

After a very busy few days in Myanmar and lots of airport hopping, we were well and truly ready to lay down some roots and have a damn sleep in. Chiang Mai would not be the place for this – not this time around anyway.

We touched down in Chiang Mai at 7.30pm and were due to leave the next morning at 8am, setting off on our three day tour through northern Thailand, meaning we had about 12 hours of down time before things kicked off again.

What to do with those 12 hours? Go to the markets, get stuck into street vendor food and have a really, really hot shower. Mandalay showers were quick and fluctuated between icy cold and scalding hot with amazing speed, forcing you to do what I have dubbed the Mandalay shower tango in and out of the water.

First port of call – fish foot spas. Go, fishies, go! Get that Myanmar grit!

Fish doing their thing.
Fish doing their thing.
Patrick trying not giggle.
Patrick trying not giggle.

Mandalay – Words to the wise…

Most of Myanmar presented us with completely new experiences and challenges. Mandalay international airport was certainly no exception. Here are my tidbits of advice for those of you who might one day find themselves in Mandalay international airport.

Everything will happen in Myanmar time. Which is even slower than North Queensland time.

It took a good 20 minutes or more for our bags to make it from the plane to the terminal. The airline ground staff in Mandalay were by no means in a rush to do anything. Everything was done at a leisurely pace, with friendly chats along the way. I’m not the most patient person in the world, and I was super keen to get out of the airport and see Mandalay. But the staff were not lazy, just relaxed. A reminder that not everything needs to be done at lightning speed. The wait for our luggage provided me with a good opportunity to plonk down on the floor and scribble in my journal.

Be aware of the power outages.

Because I wasn’t. Whilst sitting on the floor, writing and waiting for the luggage, the power went out plunging the arrivals hall into darkness. Cue a slight wave of panic. ‘What the hell? I can’t see! How am I supposed to see my bag on the carousel? How does the carousel run? Damnit, now the air conditioning doesn’t work and its hot.’ Don’t worry, the power will come back. Chances are the power has been out for a while and they needed to swap generators to run lights and other essential electrics (generators ran everything for the whole two days we were in Mandalay). More patience is required. A perhaps a palm leaf fan to combat the lack of air conditioning.

John with his woven palm leaf fan. We each bought one the first night in Yangon. Best investment of the trip. Cost us 100 kyats each ($AUD 0.10).
John with his woven palm leaf fan. We each bought one the first night in Yangon. Best investment of the trip. Cost us 100 kyats each ($AUD 0.10).

The airport is really dark anyway.

Probably because they have to use generators for power most of the time. You can see, but the light is definitely not that fantastic. It’s a bit like wearing sunglasses inside. Don’t drop anything small, like an earring, because it’s too dark to find it. But you don’t know the meaning of “dark arrivals hall” until the power goes out. That’s dark.

Be ready for the attack of the extremely helpful-to-the-point-of-hindering taxi touts.

Once we’d collected our bags, we made our way toward the exit and were accosted by taxi service touts who pounced on us like over enthusiastic puppies. All smiling, all friendly, all meaning well, they chattered and shouted over each other to us in broken English whilst grabbing at our suitcases and trying to steer us toward cars. I was far too tired and snappy to cope with this and it was not something I was expecting. I tried to distance myself from it and left the bargaining to John, who was cool as a cucumber. Consider this your warning – late nights and early mornings at your previous destinations will ensure your head is spinning by the time you get outside.

There is no such thing as “getting to the airport too early”.

The airport is a fair hike from town, and this after you’ve battled the crazy traffic to get onto the highway. Book a taxi the night before to pick you up from your hotel and drop you out there. We asked our driver from the day before to pick us up and he agreed to for a reasonable price.

Something else to take note of is the lack of departure boards – thank you, power outages. That’s right, no electronic departure boards to advise of departure gates and times. Getting to the airport extra early means you won’t have to stress about gates changing without your knowledge – ground staff will advise you in person.

Blue marker: Mandalay international airport. Yellow marker: our hotel - Mandalay View Inn.
Blue marker: Mandalay international airport.
Yellow marker: our hotel – Mandalay View Inn.

Eat before you go.

This may have been a symptom of Thingyan approaching, but when we arrived at Mandalay international airport for our flight to Thailand, there were no restaurants, bars or snack stalls open. Admittedly, the airport is not exactly the busiest place on Earth so the lack of shops and eateries is understandable. There were a scattering of shops selling tourist trinkets, some of which will convert your kyat back to US dollars.

Keep your eyes open… you’ll be endlessly entertained.

Never have I been to an international airport where I have watched two men pick their way through six foot high grass to climb through a hole in the fence, and then stroll across the apron to a set of stairs leading to the terminal. No, I’m not kidding, I actually saw that happen.

All information in this post was correct at time of travel. Given the tourist boom that Myanmar is beginning to experience, it is possible that things have changed. Always do your research before you travel.

Mandalay – U Bein Bridge

This was my favourite, my absolute must see. The U Bein Bridge.

This stunning teak bridge runs 1.2km across the Taungthaman Lake, making it the world’s longest teak footbridge. We didn’t visit at sunset or sunrise like 90% of the iconic photos show, but I plan to go back.

It was amazing to go there and be able to walk on it. I can now tick setting foot on the U Bein Bridge off my bucket list!

Boats at the edge of the lake, with the bridge stretching across in the background.
Boats at the edge of the lake, with the bridge stretching across in the background.
Entry/exit to the bridge.
Entry/exit to the bridge.
IMG_3895
U Bein Bridge.
Met this cutie on our walk on the bridge. Then kept bumping into her at the surrounding pubs and markets! She would shout "BYE BYE" excitedly at us every time.
Met this cutie on our walk on the bridge. Then kept bumping into her at the surrounding pubs and markets! She would shout “BYE BYE” excitedly at us every time.
My feet on the bridge.
My feet on the bridge.
Locals on the bridge.
Locals on the bridge.
U Bein Bridge.
U Bein Bridge.
John on the U Bein Bridge.
John on the U Bein Bridge.
Even animals could be found on the bridge.
Even animals could be found on the bridge.

 

 

More of Mandalay

I must admit, I had high expectations for Mandalay. Everything that I’d read and seen told me it would be spectacular. Perhaps I got caught up in the romance of it. Whatever it was, it meant I was left slightly disappointed by Mandalay.

It was dirty and smoggy, very spread out, choked with traffic and overwhelmingly noisy. We were there two days and the power didn’t work once; generators ran continuously and some places were selective about what they powered from the generators. We were all exhausted by this point of our trip (and Pat and I ended up with a small bout of food poisoning from some dodgy milk) too, which added to our disappointment.

However, Mandalay has plenty to do. You really need more than two days there – we wrote a list of our “must sees” over beers and sun set gazing at the Shwe Taung Tan restuarant, which changed rapidly when we discovered there was a football game on the next day. We hired an air conditioned car and driver for the day for 45,000 kyat ($AUD50).

Shwenandaw Monastery

Stairway to the monastery.
Stairway to the monastery.

A truly amazing structure, even if the creaks are a little unsettling. The Shwenandaw Monastery was built by King Mindon in the 19th century and was once a part of the original Mandalay palace. After King Mindon died (allegedly inside this very monastery), King Thibaw had it moved from the palace to it’s current resting place. The original palace has since burned down and been hastily reconstructed. Shwenandaw Monastery is the only remaining piece of the original Mandalay Palace.

The entire monastery is made of teak wood and would have been completely covered with gold once upon a time. The intricate carvings are still there, although some are damaged. Women are not allowed within a certain section of the monastery, but we were free to take photos throughout the building.

Shwenandaw Monastery.
Shwenandaw Monastery.
Remains of the gold coating.
Remains of the gold coating.
Carvings along the outside of the monastery.
Carvings along the outside of the monastery.
Inside Shwenandaw Monastery.
Inside Shwenandaw Monastery.
Ceiling.
Ceiling.

Kuthodaw Paya

Kuthodaw Paya is surrounded by 729 marble slabs, each housed in its own little white stupa. The slabs layout the complete 15 books of the Tripitaka. King Mindon once hired a team of 2400 monks to read the entire set out in a continuous relay. It took them 6 months to finish.

Some of Kuthodaw Paya's 729 small white stupas.
Some of Kuthodaw Paya’s 729 small white stupas.

It’s quite difficult to gain an understand of the size of the complex from the ground.¬† It sprawls out in all directions for what feels like miles! I was forever getting left behind by Patrick and John, because I got distracted by just about everything.

Scale model of the paya which helps give you a sense of the size of it.
Scale model of the paya which helps give you a sense of the size of it.

Everything  was peaceful inside the walls of the paya. The pagoda itself glittered in the hot sun and we were sure to stick to the white marble path in an attempt to stop the soles of our feet burning. Monks and other worshippers wandered through the complex around us, leaving incense and green banana arrangements at planetary posts.

The pagoda.
The pagoda.

While we walked around the pagoda, local teenage girls and young monks came running up to us giggling and asking for photos. We obliged. This had me confused for the longest time, because we were really nothing special. Just foreigners, staring in open-mouthed awe at the glittering pagoda and the hundreds of small white stupas. When we met up with our Burmese friends Carlos and Shiba in Bangkok, they explained it to us. According to them, having your photo taken with foreigners in Myanmar is very exciting and something to brag about. People will often hang these photos on the wall of their houses so they can tell all their friends and visitors about the time they had their photo taken with the foreigners. Little bit humbling, I thought! There are now four monks and five teenage girls running around with our photos in Mandalay.

This beautiful tree is over 180 years old!
This beautiful tree is over 180 years old!

Mandalay Hill

Mandalay Hill sticks out like a sore thumb on the Mandalay horizon. Several temples and monasteries are nestled amongst the scrub, with some of the most famous Mandalay temples perched on the top. Spectacularly lit at night, this 230m high hill is a thriving and busy place of worship and tourist markets.

We took our car up to the top, but you can walk up (if you, I recommend having your head read… the heat in Mandalay was immense, the last thing I’d want to do is climb a whole lot of stairs to the top of the hill). At the start of the main walkway up, two enormous lions stand either side of the walkway.

Patrick in front of the huge lions.
Patrick in front of the huge lions.

The view from the top was… hazy. But that was partly due to the time of year we were visiting (in April, farmers clear land by setting it alight; the smoke haze is very thick). You could imagine Mandalay sprawling out before you, in all its hustling and bustling glory.

The view from part way up the hill.
The view from part way up the hill.

At the very top of the hill, you must pay a small fee to be allowed to take photos. The very top of the hill is crowned by a large temple, and I am unsure whether the camera fee went to the temple or the government. I didn’t pay it and vowed to remember the view.

The top of the staircase up the hill. The beginning was down at the giant lions.
The top of the staircase up the hill. The beginning was down at the giant lions.

The markets near the temples at the top of the hill were a curious mix of local needs and tourist trinkets – all without the shouting touts that we’d grown accustom to in Bangkok. Some women were selling t-shirts, lacquerware and hats, while others were busy crouching over pots on the fire, stirring madly or chopping furiously. The scent of sandalwood incense mixed with the aroma of chillis and garlic, and women scalded children for running down the stairs or throwing rice at each other. As with all of Mandalay, the top of the hill was the same chaotic and noisy. You couldn’t escape the hubbub, even when you were on top of the hill.

Colours of the one of the temples on Mandalay Hill.
Colours of the one of the temples on Mandalay Hill.

Mahamuni Paya

Mahamuni Paya houses a four meter high golden Buddha statue, decorated with precious gems. Locals believe it to be nearly 2000 years old. However, Mahamuni Paya differs from other temples. Women are not allowed to touch the statue, or even pray inside the main hall. Men and women are separated, with women relegated to the sides and far back of the worship hall, and can only view the statue via television screens. Men prostrate themselves in front of the Buddha image and apply gold leaf to it. In fact, so much gold leaf has been applied over the years that the gold is six inches thick.

Women praying at Mahamuni Paya.
Women praying at Mahamuni Paya.

Mahamuni Paya is the cause of some controversy. Lord Buddha never taught segregation like this, and many women believe the time has come for equality.

Men applying gold leaf to the Buddha statue.
Men applying gold leaf to the Buddha statue.

I wasn’t too fussed with the Buddha statue – the segregation thing put me off a little bit. However, Mahamuni Paya houses six bronze statues that started their life in Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

Two of the bronze statues.
Two of the bronze statues.

Originally the spoils of war, these Khmer statues were taken from Angkor Wat to Ayutthaya by the Siamese in 1431. The Burmese invaded Ayutthaya in 1564, and took the statues back to Myanmar (then Burma). After a spate of internal wars, these six statues were brought to Mandalay. There were up to thirty statues at one point, but King Thibaw melted many down to cast cannons for his palace. These six are the only remaining statues today.

Locals believe the statues hold healing powers and by making offerings to the statues and rubbing their hands over the affected area on the statue, they will be cured.

Giant pillars of one of the halls.
Giant pillars of one of the halls.

Gold Pounder’s District

The famous gold leaf applied to so many of the Buddhist statues in Myanmar is pounded out by hand, here in Mandalay. It was a fascinating look at the industry, where men worked furiously, pounding the gold into gossamer thin sheets and women sliced and packed the gold leaf into neat packets with painstaking precision and patience.

Ladies packaging the gold leaf.
Ladies packaging the gold leaf.

The staff showed us around the workshop and explained the process to us. There are also lots of stunning gold souvenirs available – I bought a small “gold leaf”, an actual leaf coated with gold. We also left small tips in the bowls placed in front of the gold pounders.

Gold being pounded into thin sheets.
Gold being pounded into thin sheets.
Gold sheets.
Gold sheets.

Jade Market

I didn’t get any photos of this place, but if you thought the car horns of Yangon were noisy, wait until you get near the jade polishers at the jade market. This dirty, pokey open air market makes for an intriguing visit.

Some stalls sell dirty great hunks of raw jade, whilst others will cut slices or chunks off for you. Along one side, jade shops flourish, selling polished jade jewellery. Shop owners laze on collapsing couches, smoking cheroots through PVC bongs (not even kidding!) and watching shop assistants play an odd version of backgammon.

I bought a small jade buddha pendant, which they threaded on to a cord for me to wear.

Some sections of the “walkway” – again, you are sharing this space with speeding scooters and motorbikes – become boggy from the water used to wash the jade as it is polished. Watch where you step, or you’ll end up sinking to your knees in smelly mud!

I beg to differ…

I received my once-every-so-often email newsletter from Lonely Planet today, with a link to an article called “The essential guide to travelling to Myanmar/Burma“.

Now, I love Lonely Planet. I use their guidebooks when I travel and plan my travels, I use them as a reference guide, for their maps and their handy language books. However, in the article I noticed some information that I found to be false when we travelled to Myanmar in April. The information regarding safety and hotel availability is correct. You are safe – very safe! – and hotels do fill up quickly. It is highly recommended to book early, or risk being stressed out on your trip (do not want). Cash availability and domestic flights however is a bit different. I would like to offer our experiences in Myanmar as a bit of compare and contrast.

Budget and money

The Lonely Planet article, published on April 4, states that “in January 2013, KBZ and CB banks opened international ATMs throughout Burma. These accept both Visa and Mastercard, and charge a fee of 5000 kyat”. KBZ and CB banks have indeed opened more ATMs through Myanmar, but very few were Visa or Mastercard compatible. We tried a few (for testing purposes) and had no luck. It didn’t recognise our cards and gave them straight back. Other travellers we encountered had experienced the same. Do not rely on ATMs in Myanmar. This is correct as at April 2013.

Cash is definitely the way to go until ATMs are a bit more common and reliable. Myanmar is such a safe place that I had no concerns about carrying our cash with me during our trip. We took new, clean flat US dollars (stored in my oversized travel wallet to keep them flat. John stored his in a book) printed post 2006. We did a budget, and allowed extra – in case of emergency. Better to be looking at it, than looking for it. Upon arrival in Yangon from Singapore, we exchanged the USD for local kyat at the exchange counter inside the terminal. On 31 March 2013, we received an exchange rate of 876 kyat to the US dollar. There were no problems with exchange; it was a painless exercise, even if a little slow. Everyone works on Myanmar time there.

It is possible to change your kyat back to US dollars too. We also changed our kyat back to US dollars when leaving Myanmar, which was not as fruitless as first thought. Leaving Mandalay International Airport, we received an exchange rate of about 835 kyat to the US dollar (once in Thailand, we exchanged the USD for Thai baht to top up our wallets).

Euro was also featured on the exchange boards, however, I cannot confirm whether it is widely accepted. Err on the side of caution and take US dollars.

Domestic flights within Myanmar

The Lonely Planet article also states that “it is cheaper and easier to book domestic flights once you are in Burma”. Not so. We booked/reserved our domestic flight tickets months before we left Australia. I posted earlier explaining the complicated booking process. When we went to pick up our tickets from the Air Mandalay office, three other foreigners were in there trying to arrange flights from Yangon to Bagan. They obviously had not booked and there was nothing available for at least another fortnight. Domestic flights are run on small planes and there are few flights each day. These fill up quickly. Save yourself the hassle and arrange tickets before you go. Do not leave it until the last minute.

Apart from those few errors, the article is correct. The roads are rough, but if you’ve driven on the Bruce Highway it won’t be anything new. There were state areas closed off to tourists, such as Kachin state and parts of Rakhine and Shan states. Information about closed areas is far easier to come across once you are on the ground in Myanmar. Credit cards are still a foreign concept to most places except some hotels. Female travellers are very safe. And the locals will fall over themselves to be welcoming and friendly.

Get there and see it now, before mass tourism changes it all. After all, not being able to rely on a credit card or a 7/11 is all part of the adventure!