Of Songthaews and Temples

This post is ridiculously long, rambling and raw, and so, dear reader, you are excused if you choose to jump down to the nice temple photos at the end of the post.

Another day, another songthaew.

Despite all the planning, some days just go awry when travelling in a foreign land, and more so when you’ve been too lazy to learn the language, other than good morning and thank you, two courtesies that are obligatory to learn in any country you might visit. I have never got my head around the Thai language: I promised myself to learn more this year. Maybe it’s the tropical heat dulling my brain or the insanely difficult Thai script, a syllabic alphabet based on the Brahmi script. Here’s a basic sample below, which looks like one of those children’s activities, ‘spot the difference’. But note, this is the easy part. You get to add extra squiggly marks to add vowel sounds to these letters and after that come the tones. I give up.

Getting back to my very bad day. Things started well. We hailed a songthaew – a Hilux van converted into a bus with two side seats in the back for passengers. Called rot si daeng or red car in Chiang Mai, we paid our 50 bhat each and headed over to my favourite market, the monster and largely untouristed Worawat. I love getting about in Songtheows. The semi open sides and open back door give you enough cheap thrills en route, welcome fresh breezes, as well as more views of the ancient walls and moat which enclose this ancient city. Songthaews travel slowly. The traffic in Chiang Mai is orderly and the drivers are polite, both on the road and to their customers. This is where a courteous thank you, Kob kun krub” or “Kob kun ka“( ขอขอบคุณ for those of you who read Thai) is all important, which is always reciprocated, often with a wai.

Philosophy found in Buddhist temples.

The day was progressing as planned. We spent a few hours meandering around that cavernous market until lunch called. Songthaews get busy at lunchtime and many drivers aren’t so keen to leave the market precinct when they can pick up a load of passengers at a time and not two insane tourists who want to go across town. After some time negotiating with the perennially polite drivers, we arrived at our favourite temple, Wat Suan Dok. Our main mission was to eat at the renowned slow food restaurant behind the temple, Pun Pun Vegetarian Restaurant. A sign earlier in the week promised a re-opening on August 4th and today was that auspicious day. With heightened anticipation and growing hunger, we made our way past all the lovely white wats to Pun Pun, to be greeted by this sign:

Noooo!
The next shot was taken by my camera inadvertently after reading the sign above. It conveys my feelings of frustration and disappointment perfectly.

My favourite Chiang Mai restaurant closed again? Oh well, there would be plenty more fine restaurants a red truck ride away. Re-entering the busy suburban Suthep road in search of another Songthaew, the sun and heat now unbearable, we noticed something very odd. The street was full of policemen and army personnel who were clearing the road of bikes, traffic and old non-Thai speaking pedestrians. We were shooed off the pavements. Something momentous was about to happen. From the long explanation given to us in Thai by one of those heavily uniformed young men, were caught one word in English- King! The king is revered in Thailand, though this new young king hasn’t yet earned the status of his father. We walked some more and waited for the royal cavalcade. Some of the banked up traffic was let through, and then the roads were closed and cleared again. Was the king in the nearby hospital? Would he appear in a black tinted car, making the wait a total waste of time? Did we just imagine we heard them say King? Our hunger and impatience increasing, we decided to walk four kilometres to our next dining option.

I’m a songthaew cowboy. Mr T rides again.

After a late afternoon sleep and a dose of Netflicks, we decided on a pizza dinner, something I need to eat from time to time. We called up a little tuk- tuk and headed into the unlit back lanes of the Moon Muang district. The pizza place was packed. After a wait of 10 minutes or so, the kind waitress found us a small, uncomfortable spot on top of some other would be diners, the loud techno music growing increasingly annoying. We were then informed that the wait for our pizza would be at least one hour. We left. After more walking, I lost my appetite. Some days just go like this.

Tuk Tuks, the other means of transport, useful when needing to find places in little lanes off lanes.

I include these photos of Wat Suan Dok as a reminder that life on the road really is an adventure and that I tend to dwell on food a little too much for my own good.

Wat Suan Dok, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Wat Suan Dok, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Wat Suan Dok

Wats of Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai. Dawn’s aura breaks through the rain laden night clouds, illuminating golden finials along the sky line. Curlicues in the shape of birds or nagas reach into the sky in every direction, reminding me that I have not yet visited every Wat in Chiang Mai’s old walled city. There will always be more to surprise me.

Golden finials on Wats, this one on the shape of a Naga.
Decoration is elabourate, sometimes kitsch.
New Wats or temples are often built in the grounds of an ancient Chedi or Stupa.

Wat Suan Dok, with its hypnotic white temples, outside the old walls.

For The Daily Post’s photographic challenge, Textures.

Sunday Walking Street Market, Chiang Mai

A visit to Chiang Mai, Thailand, never seems complete without attending the famous Sunday Walking Street Market. The market takes over four streets in the centre of the old city, beginning at the Tha Pae Gate at one end and running down the one kilometer length of Ratchadamnoen Road and spilling into nearby side streets. The area is closed to traffic from 4 pm until midnight. The market is popular with locals and tourists and is packed, especially round dinner time.

Fresh fruit shakes ready to be blended. 30 Bhat.

On one side, just after sunset, a lone singer appears dressed in a policeman’s uniform. This year he is a serious looking young man: he sings a mournful ballad in Thai. In previous years, that same spot was occupied by an older policeman with an Elvis slick back hairstyle and dark sunglasses, who only sang Elvis Presley songs. Sometimes his 8-year-old daughter performed alongside him. Bring back the Elvis cop. But are they really policemen? I’ll never know. I’m not sure who to ask in this crowded, stall filled corner.

Sunday walking market, Chiang Mai, ’17

Nearby stands the Thai musical instrument stall. Late at night, a troupe of elderly musicians will sit gracefully on a tiny platform and play traditional Lan Na music that is so haunting, it usually makes me cry. The instruments look and sound foreign to the untrained ear.

Ancient Thai instruments.

Midst this crowd, a troupe of blind singers suddenly appears. They move slowly holding a lamp: the crowds step aside as they make their way courageously through the throng, singing melodic Thai tunes in harmony.

Stalls with paper lanterns, stalls with far too much colour, handmade items are a feature of this market. The kitsch nestles side by side with the tasteful. Soft leather wallets and hand-made shoes, artistic etched calico shopping bags, carved psychedelic soaps and interesting fish patterned ceramics, hand printed t-shirts and indigo dyed clothing, home-made cakes, biscuits and sweets, and an abundance of street food stalls, the latter nestled into the front courtyards of temples, it’s a big night out for Thai families. Junk food abounds: there are deep-fried insects and grilled air- dried squid, Thai sausages and pad thai, mango sticky rice, and kôw soy, sweet tropical fruit drinks and some based on tinned Carnation milk. Dotted throughout are small areas offering massage for foot and leg or shoulder and neck. After walking slowly and hesitantly for two or three kilometers in a crowd, you may need one.

The annual Chiang Mai T-shirt purchase. One with a guitar please.

Feeling exhausted and slightly deranged, we wander back to our hotel near Wat Phra Singh and down a large bottle of Chang beer. The market’s sensory overload takes its toll but I wouldn’t miss it for Bhat.

Wats of Northern Thailand.

dense33

Visiting the wats of Northern Thailand can be overwhelming at first, given the density and opulence of the Lan Na decor: colourful glass mosaic inlay and mulberry painted wooden beams and doorways, quivering golden prayer flags hung from heavy beams above, Jade Buddhas and mummified monks too real to believe. These images were taken at various wats around Chiang Mai and Lampang, around 100 kms north-east of Chiang Mai and other smaller towns of the old Lan Na kingdom. The wats are beginning to blur. Chiang Mai calls.

dense5
Jade Buddha
Decoration is overwhelming
Lan Na Style decor
Buddha hands
Lan Na Lotus
Mummified monks

Thursday is now the day to indulge in travel memories, courtesy of the photographic prompts from wordpress. Today’s prompt is Dense.

Taste from Heaven

I haven’t adjusted to the cold of Melbourne’s Spring weather. Spring is so overrated: there isn’t much difference between the first month of Spring and Winter, except for the presence of daffodils. Unlike Wordsworth, daffodils don’t make me feel gay or jocund, nor do I have time to lie on the couch “in vacant or in pensive mood” thinking about them!  A bunch or two of nodding yellow flowers improves the decor, but hardly makes up for the perennial grey of sky that seeps into the dark recesses of the psyche.

To counter this dullness of season and mood, I’m mentally returning to Thailand to complete some unfinished business. Let me introduce Nan, the proprietor of Taste from Heaven restaurant, in Chiang Mai.

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Nan, of Taste of Heaven, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Nan owned a Thai restaurant in the Gold Coast, Australia for many years before returning to her home town to open Taste  from Heaven some years ago. She is a gracious front of house, keeping a careful eye on the flow of customers, engaging pleasantly with them, as well as being involved in the daily running of the restaurant. I returned to Nan’s “Heaven” at least 7 times whilst in Chiang Mai. To be truthful, I really didn’t want to go anywhere else.

If you are in need of sunshine, warmth or a metaphorical daffodil, these lovely dishes might offer consolation.

Grilled mushoom skewers, great with a Chang Beer
Grilled mushroom skewers, marinated with coconut oil, Indian curry powder, turmeric powder,milk and coconut milk served with peanut sauce. 85 Baht

We tried so many dishes from the menu and usually ordered far too much. The size of the dishes at ‘Heaven’ are larger than the usual Thai offerings. Often as a starter, to go with a chilled beer, we ordered Grilled Mushrooms with Peanut sauce. I never asked Nan about the mushroom species but they were large and ‘meaty’. The deep-fried Angel mushrooms   (below) were also rather ‘moreish’.

Deep Fried Mushrooms in a seasoned sesame seed tempura batter served with sweet chilli sauce. 75 Baht
Angel mushrooms deep-fried in a seasoned sesame seed tempura batter served with sweet chilli sauce. 75 Baht

We usually shared two or three mains after one entrée, along with rice. At ‘Heaven’ you choose between steamed jasmine rice, in white, brown or black. They are all good. Below, I have featured a few of the sensational dishes we tried. More can be found on my post here.

sirr frieed eggplant with garrlic, tofu, spring onons, chilli soya bean sauce and seet basil leaves. 75 Baht
Stir fried eggplant with garlic, tofu, spring onions, chilli soya bean sauce and sweet basil leaves. 75 Baht
Mushroom Larb- chopped angel mushroom, stemp mushroom with special sauce, mint, red onion, chilli powder, chopped tofu, roasted rice and lime juice.
Mushroom Larb- chopped angel mushroom, stemp mushroom with special sauce, mint, red onion, chilli powder, chopped tofu, roasted rice and lime juice.
Pad Se-Ew noodle, with garlic, textured soy protein,carrot, cauliflower and Chinese broccoli. 75baht.
Pad Se-Ew noodle, with garlic, textured soy protein,carrot, cauliflower and Chinese broccoli. 75baht.
Massaman curry, complete with deep exotic middle eastern flavous.
Massaman curry, potato, textured soy protein, root vegetables complete with deep exotic Indian flavours, such as whole cardamom pods.
Thai Green curry. Hmmmmm.
Thai green curry. Mmmmm.
Thai style eggplant salad, with tofu, oniion, chili, garlic topped with mint and served with boiled egg.
Thai style eggplant salad, with tofu, onion, chili, garlic topped with mint and served with boiled egg.

The eggplant salad was my favourite. I remember the first time I tasted this dish in Narathiwat in 1995; the taste has lingered all these years. The key element is the smoked Thai baby eggplant which are then skinned and lightly mashed, retaining their smoky juices which blend so well with the lime juice and herbal elements. I mentioned to Nan that this dish is slowly disappearing from Thai menus, or if it does turn up, it lacks the oomph provided by the smoke, raw garlic and mint.

Heavenly food from Taste from Heaven.
Heavenly food from Taste from Heaven.
Another smiling staff member form Taste From Heaven
Another smiling staff member from Taste From Heaven
  • They also run a cookery school, three hours, for 100o baht pp. Sadly, Nan’s assistant was away for a month and so I missed out. Next time for sure.
  •  At the time of writing, the exchange rate was around 25 Baht to the Australian dollar. Most plates cost around $3-4, with rice at around $1.

Thank you Nan for the delightful food memories.

Taste from Heaven Vegetarian Restaurant

34/1 Ratmakka Road,
T. Prasinhg A. Muang,
Chiang Mai 5020

Open every day from 9am to 10pm
(except Wednesday 9am to 9pm)

http://taste-from-heaven.com/Taste_From_Heaven/Home.html

Chiang Mai for beginners, Part 1.

I make many assumptions when writing about Thailand- one of the worst slips is to lapse into local terminology for things, assuming that they are common words in English, and then I realise that they probably aren’t.

Monks leave the temple grounds of Wat Chedi Luang on their way to class.
Monks leave the temple grounds of Wat Chedi Luang on their way to class. Most young monks stay only for one season.

The following little guide is for Chiang Mai and regional cities throughout Thailand. Thai beaches in Phuket and other beaches tend to be very westernised places catering to foreign needs. Thai culture is almost lost in these towns. This list is for the traveller, not the beach sun baker or the resort frequenter.

What is a Wat?

  • Temples are called Wats, coming from the Sanskrit word for enclosure, and are places of worship for Buddhists. In northern Thailand, especially around Chiang Mai and Lampang, Wats are distinguished by the Lanna style of architecture. You will notice many similar features to the Pagodas of Burma and the Wats of Laos.
  • Wats will usually contain a golden Chedi, a conical or bell-shaped building, similar to the Nepalese Stupa , which often contains sacred relics. The Chedi is usually in the grounds of the enclosure and is separate from the temple or temples.
  • Wats are often large compounds containing schools for monks, a monastery, a garden, a large Bodhi tree and shaded areas to sit and relax. They are relaxed places and provide a welcome shady break from the busy streets.
  • Wats often also house museums, sometimes a cafe, and stalls selling religious items such as amulets, candles and flowers. They are really busy on the weekend so consider visiting Wats dring the week.
  • They are public spaces and welcome foreigners. It is polite to make a small donation ( say around 20 Baht) and to drop your spare coins in the ‘days of the week’ boxes or monks’ bowls.

Notes for Travellers visiting a Wat in Thailand.

  • You must remove your shoes before entering a Wat. Consider the type of footwear you will wear when doing a day touring the wats. Shoes with ties or elabourate clasps will become annoying. Wear thongs or scuffs. This is the preferred daytime footwear of the locals.
  • Shoes are also removed when visiting people’s homes, in guesthouses, many shops and businesses but keep them on in restaurants. Be guided by what you see.
  • Spotto the annoying shoes in these photos below.
  • Dress modestly. This applies in the churches of Europe: the same respect applies to the temples (Buddhist or other) in Asia. Modest dress is a sign of humility. Put the shorts and singlets away and keep them for the beach. Most temples will, for a small fee, supply some cover up clothing for those who have turned up in their beach wear.  It is much better and simpler to be conscious of the customs of the country you are visiting. Below, a sign outside a Wat, and a young European couple, oblivious to the offence they cause. Cultural ignorance or cultural arrogance? I wonder sometimes.
  •  You will often find a well signed toilet within the grounds. Handy information! Always carry your own tissues, however most Thai toilets now have paper, are super clean and modern.
  • Sometimes scammers hang around temples. They are usually very well dressed and have an excellent grasp of English. This used to happen around Chiang Mai but I haven’t noticed any on this trip. They are still rife in Bangkok.  Don’t respond to any unsolicited, polite greetings,  just don’t acknowledge them. Breaking out into another language, real or made up, is another strategy.

Inside the walls.

  • When choosing a place to stay, look at the map of Chiang Mai before choosing. Chiang Mai’s ancient city lies inside a square, the city’s ancient walls still visible here and there, along with a moat.  Most of Chiang Mai’s attractions lie within these walls: great restaurants,  good footpaths, parks, markets, the sunday walking Market, the Saturday night market, a hundred Wats, and a vibrant cosmopolitan and artistic community.
  • Big international resort hotels are not located in the ancient city. They are out in the busy traffic clogged suburbs or along the Ping River. You might like the look of these western places but will be forced to negotiate daily or thrice daily for a tuk-tuk to and fro back into the old city. If you like the thrill of spontaneous wandering and discovery, choose a place to suit your budget within the old city walls.

Below, Map of Chiang Mai, showing the walls of the old city and outskirts near the Ping River.

A little bit of Thai language.

These two phrases go a long way.

  • Hello – Sawa dee
    Spoken by males – Cup / Females – Ka
    (“sawadee ka” for females and “sawadee cup” for males)

If you are female, draw our the ka with a long breathy sound: if male, the cup sound is very clipped

  • Thank you very much
  • kob kun cup  (male) , kob koon Ka (female)

Cup / Ka, can be said at the end of any sentence, it is a sign of respect and regarded as the polite form of these expressions.

Under the Bodhi trees, a little philosophy awaits.
Under the Bodhi trees, a little philosophy awaits.

The 3 Sis Vacation Lodge, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The entrance to the 3 Sis, down a Quiet soi.
The entrance to the 3 Sis, down a Quiet soi.

Just call me a creature of habit, but when I find a lovely place to stay, there really isn’t any reason to ‘shop around’. In Chiang Mai I always return to the 3 Sis Vacation Lodge. This modest sized boutique hotel is run by three charming sisters who are helpful, humourous and genuinely interested in the needs of their guests.

Sister number one, funny and helpful.
Beautiful Sister number one, funny and a gold mine of local knowledge.

The hotel is ideally situated inside the walls of the old city and opposite Wat Chedi Luang. Despite its central location, it is quiet, especially the rooms located along Phrapokkload Rd, Soi 8. Choosing can present a dilemma. The rooms in the front building facing the main road can be a little noisy in the morning, but then, imagine a room looking down on a golden Chedi below, with the sound of morning bells and gongs (7 am) and Wat Doi Suthep shining on the mountain in the distance? Double happiness.

Beautiful sister no 2. Affectionate and warm.
Beautiful sister no 2. Affectionate and warm.

The upstairs rooms in the back section along Soi 8 ( soi means lane), have windows fronting a quiet residential area with French windows opening onto the greenery below. Very Graham Green-esque! Squeeze a fresh lime into that Vodka or Gin, open the shutters and let the warm air work its afternoon magic. Another Wat bell rings: to sleep or to read, that is the question.

A little fresh air.
Fresh, tropical  air. Turning off that aircon!

The decor is clean and uncluttered, with beautiful Lanna (Northern Thai) decor. The beds are large and comfortable, the breakfast is sensible without being overwhelming, and the price suits my budget.

A simple unclutteed room comes with a writingdesk, a sitting area and a lovely bathroom, No plasma, no spa, no nonsense.
A simple uncluttered room comes with a writing desk, a sitting area and a big bathroom. Plenty of plugs to charge things, a fridge, and polished boards to caress your bare feet.

Downstairs the lobby area is airy and inviting, a place to plonk oneself after long days of walking, temple visiting, or feasting.

The lobby, 3 Sis, Chiang Mai
The lobby, the 3 Sis, Chiang Mai
Lobby , the 3 Sis, Chiang Mai.
Lobby , the 3 Sis, Chiang Mai.

On Sundays, the famous walking market begins outside the front door of the 3 Sis. This popular market sees the main streets ‘pedestrianised’ after 4pm, as thousands of stall holders set up their stalls for the highlight of the week. There is music, street food, wandering blind singers, tourist nick nacks, herbal medicine, deep-fried crickets and other bugs, sweets and all sorts of wonders, from North Thailand to Laos, for sale. It is popular with the locals as well as tourists. After the long slow stroll, worn out and over stimulated, it is so nice to come back to a gentle lobby and familiar faces.

Beautiful sister no 3, World travelller and ex Melbourne resident.
Beautiful sister no 3, World traveller and ex Melbourne resident.

The fine print:

Rates start from 1650 Baht per night ( AU$63), depending on season and room size.

the lobby at the 3 Sis, Chiang Mai.
The inviting lobby at the 3 Sis, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Today Was a Good Day

Today was a very good day, but then, every day is special in my favourite Asian city. We’re in Chiang Mai again, and each time I visit, my heart grows fonder. Like an old lover, Chiang Mai unfolds slowly and deserves many visits.  It’s no wonder that so many expats call this town home.

First stop, the Writers Club for a wine.
First stop, the Writers Club for a wine or beer, or just because it’s a bit French and it’s always there.

Today we ate at a remarkable Thai vegetarian restaurant, and since we have discovered the word Jeh, along with the little yellow and red flag displaying this symbol, เจ, we then found some more. 

View from the writers club, Chiang Mai, a town with hidden sophistication.
View from the writers club, Chiang Mai, a town with hidden sophistication.

Thai Vegetarian and Vegan food is not at all boring and holy. You won’t miss onions, meat or eggs when you taste these treats. Deep fried shitake mushroom sate with peanut sauce, minced tofu larb studded with dried chilli and basil leaf, a refreshing drink of crushed lemongrass on ice, and so much more. I wanted to order everything from the menu at Pun Pun Slow Food Vegetarian Restaurant. Visit and be delighted by this wonderful temple cafe. Cost, around AU$10 for two.

That evening, following a siesta and another temple visit, it was off to Taste From Heaven.  Deep-fried mushrooms, coated in a sesame seed batter, made an excellent appetizer to go with a cold beer (Chang, of course). The rain bucketed down outside, and we continued to order. Next a rice noodle dish, a vegetarian version of a Pad See Ew arrived.  I love big fresh rice noodles: smoked by the breath of a hot wok, the dish was classic comfort food and went well with the rain. Another dish, a deep-fried tempura morning glory vine, kangkung, with cashew nuts and tofu, was a surprising twist on the meal. All were helped along by a generous portion of red rice. Vegan chocolate brownie? Yes indeed, and a little fork war followed.

My glorious day will be followed by more, I know. But today was the day of the Jeh restaurant discovery. I’m in heaven.

The details:

Pun Pun Restaurant,  Wat Suan Dok temple, Suthep Road, Chiang Mai. Or see other locations here. http://punpunthailand.org/restaurant/index.html

Taste from Heaven, Ratmakka Road, Chiang Mai. or see http://taste-from-heaven.com/

For my brother Michael, who loves Chiang Mai too.

Wat Chedi Luang, Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand, is the most beautiful city in Asia and an important centre for Lanna culture and Buddhist temples, with over 200 temples in and around the city. One of my favourite temples is Wat Chedi Luang, which sits at the centre of the old walled city. I like to base myself nearby so that I can visit old Chedi often. It is always the first temple I visit before wandering the town endlessly, discovering new delights. Gleaming with golden Buddhas, colourful prayer flags drift from the ceiling and Lanna glass mosaics line the walls.