Posted in Asia, Chiang Mai, English, Phuket, Thailand

Thailand – Day 7

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

24 March 2018

This post is also supposed to turn out short, as well as devoid of any particular enthusiasm. But anyway, the morning started pretty well. We got up, had a slow breakfast at the poolside (by the way, the breakfast in Chiang Mai is leading so far, compared to breakfasts in other cities: there’s more variety, the food is tastier and the place looks more pleasant overall), and went for a walk to the Old Town on our own.

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Basically, just as during our evening walk with the guide, we didn’t discover anything particularly remarkable in the Old Town. Well, there is a medieval city wall, but I’ve seen better walls. Otherwise, there are lots and lots of temples at literally every step – I think, Chiang Mai has around 300 of them, in fact, that is what it’s famous for.

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On the way we noticed an interesting procession. First we saw school-aged boys in identical white clothes. They were followed by girls, in the same type of clothes, only with skirts. Then we saw young monks of the same age in monastic robes of the same white colour. There were also occasional adults, dressed normally, but all carrying beautifully folded orange cloth in their hands – it looked as if they were carrying robes for monks as a gift. Some schoolchildren were carrying some flags or portraits of the king and members of the royal family. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to figure out what kind of event that was and where they were all heading.

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We didn’t get to do a long walk, as it became very hot, so we returned to the hotel, packed and came downstairs to the lobby to wait for our driver for our airport transfer. Kudos to the driver, he arrived exactly on time – it’s not for nothing that we liked him (moreover, in the driver-guide tandem, he was definitely our favourite).

The flight to Phuket itself was on time and went fine. But at the airport there was a surprise waiting for us – or rather, there wasn’t anyone waiting for us at all. Based on our experience working with this travel agency, this came completely unexpected, as neither in Vietnam, nor in Thailand so far had we faced such issues. We tried calling the agency, but no one responded – it was Saturday, after all. To our great luck, though, we had a business card from Vanna, our Bangkok guide. We called her, she followed up, and it turned out that there was someone waiting for us after all, but he didn’t have our names written on the paper, or maybe forgot about us completely. By the way, he wasn’t a personal guide, but merely a representative of the transfer company, and, having made us wait for some more time, finally organised a car with a driver for us. In total, we had to wait for at least 45 minutes. Honestly, it wasn’t the most pleasant experience, because while our Vietnam trip had left us with the impression that we were much better off taking a tour than if we’d organised the trip ourselves, in a situation like this we definitely felt that it would have been way easier for us to just get a taxi and not spend ages waiting.

As for tomorrow’s cooking class, no one left us any instructions either. Once again, many thanks to Vanna, who came to our rescue and found out everything: who would pick us up and when.

As a result, we arrived at the hotel already in the dark, and didn’t get to see much. The beach is right across our hotel, and there seem to be many different restaurants around. We wend to one of them straight away to have seafood and really enjoyed sitting on the terrace overlooking the sea (in the dark). The prices in Phuket are significantly higher than elsewhere and apparently, the restaurant itself wasn’t cheap as well. By the way, alcohol is relatively expensive throughout Thailand. A glass of wine or a cocktail here will cost the same as a main dish, if not more.

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Posted in Asia, Chiang Mai, English, Thailand

Thailand – Day 6

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

23 March 2018

We had our second planned cooking class today in Chiang Mai. In the morning we got picked up from the hotel by the cooking school’s own car, along with the a few more people from two other hotels.

Once we arrived at the school, it took us a while to understand what was going on – for some reason we were seated at a table, while our fellow car travelers were left to wait at the entrance, and then were put on a different car together with another group of newcomers and taken somewhere. Only after seeing the school’s advertising leaflet, we realised that they were offering classes both here, at the school, and on a farm, and apparently those guys had booked a farm class.

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Eventually, our group was formed – apart from us, it consisted of a French couple and two different companies of Americans. We were then given the menu. Here the concept was slightly different from what we saw in Bangkok. Out of seven categories of dishes, we were supposed to cook five on our half-day class, and three of them – curry paste, curry and spring rolls – were pre-selected for us, so our group had to agree and choose two more out of the remaining four. We chose stir-fry and dessert, and did not choose soup and salad. And then, everyone could individually pick their own dish from each chosen category. For example, I chose hot basil stir fried chicken (many went for pad thai, but we had already made that in Bangkok); a local kind of curry called khaw soi and the respective curry paste; bananas in coconut milk for dessert; and as for spring rolls, there was only one variety.

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The school has its own vegetable garden, and we went there to see and smell the ingredients frequently used in Thai cuisine: green onions, leeks, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, various kinds of basil, roots of ginger, galangal, turmeric and ginseng.

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Then we walked all the way to the local market, passing by very interesting places with guest house and cafes, apparently for backpackers and other budget tourists.

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At the market, our instructor named Da showed us different spices, ready-made curry pastes, various kinds of noodles and rice. Here I found both a short-term and a long-term solution to my problem of the lack of vital ingerdients back home – and bought a pack of dried ingredients for tom yum soup, as well as kaffir lime seeds.

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And then we came back to the cooking school and got down to business. I must say, here we were given more independence and almost made everything by ourselves. By the way, before we started cooking, we were given a snack – leaves, in which we had to wrap peanuts, small pieces of ginger, onion, chili, roasted coconut, and add a spoonful of sweet sauce. Then everyone had to say ‘chok dee’ – which kind of means ‘good luck’ – and, however funny it may seem, toast each other by “clinking” the little wraps before putting them in our mouths.

The stir fries, as usual, were very quick and easy to make, and I got some pre-cooked rice to go with mine.

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Then, two volunteers were chosen from the group, and they made a slightly larger portion of a somewhat generic stir fry, for the spring roll filling. And everyone had to wrap the desired amount of this filling in a provided pancake and deep fry their spring roll.

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After that, we made the curry paste. It turned out that no one chose green curry, and for all the others – red curry, panang curry, khaw soi and massaman curry (nobody chose the last one either) – the base paste is exactly the same, with several different ingredients added later on.

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What goes into red curry paste is the following: pre-soaked dried chili peppers, garlic, turmeric, ginseng, kaffir lime zest and lemongrass. And then you would need to add dried curry powder to make khaw soi paste or crushed peanuts for panang curry paste.

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By the way, red curry itself is made just like green curry – i.e. with Thai eggplants and basil in addition to meat, curry paste, sauces and coconut milk. As for panang curry and khaw soi, they are made without the vegetables. My khaw soi was more liquid than the other curries and had to be served with noodles rather than rice. As I understood, that’s exactly what we ate and took for noodle soup in that roadside eatery the day before yesterday. I even added an extra spoonful of curry paste, since it wasn’t spicy enough!

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At some point between making the curry paste and the curry itself, we somehow managed to squeeze in the dessert preparation. In my case, this was a simple matter: I just had to boil sliced ​​bananas in coconut milk with sugar. Interestingly, while slicing this kind of bananas, we came across big black seeds which we had to pick out – I had never seen anything like that!

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In general, we really liked the Chiang Mai cooking class as well, especially its slightly higher level of complexity after the Bangkok one. There is yet another cooking class awaiting us in Phuket, we have to see what it’s going to be like!

Our guide and driver picked us up at the culinary school, and from there we drove to our last temple in Thailand, planned in the tour programme, on Mount Doi Suthep.

The temple and its surroundings are very croded (as usual, Chinese tourists predominate). To get to the temple itself, one has to walk up 306 stairs in the heat. Fortunately, there is a nice cool breeze atop the mountain.

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You walk into the temple – the golden shine all around makes your eyes hurt. The view is, of course, magnificent, but interestingly – and we agreed on this with my friend when sharing our impressions of the trip – the temples here don’t give you that sense of peacefull bliss, they seem too pompous for that. However, it’s quite possible that it’s just us being taken to such temples, and that somewhere in the mountains, hidden from the tourist’s eye, there are temples and monasteries where you’d find peace and tranquility and want to meditate. Here, even though there is a meditation corner, you don’t quite feel like using it as intended.

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The gilded stupa (or chedi, as they are also called here) in the center of the temple also contains a sacred Buddhist relic – a bone of Lord Buddha – and according to a legend, this relic was loaded on an elephant, which was given an opportunity to pick a spot for the temple, and so the animal came here.

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By the way, as I have already said, there are stupas scattered all around Indochina, which have a special symbolic significance for those born in a certain year of the Eastern zodiac. The local stupa is associated with the year of the goat.

There is also an observation deck on the territory of the temple, with a view of entire Chiang Mai, but it’s too foggy to see anything at all.

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And we’ve been seeing this foggy haze during all the time of our stay both in Chiang Mai and in Chiang Rai, to the extent that in the morning and closer to the sunset the sun looks like an orange tangerine in the sky.

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Once back at our hotel and having said goodbye to our guide, we rested for a bit and headed out to a massage parlor, which we had found based on Internet reviews and booked online. I must say, I liked it less than the one in Chiang Rai, although it was slightly more expensive.

For dinner, we chose a nice Japanese restaurant with a terrace on the second floor and a view over the night market, and sat down outside. But then the whole dinner nearly got ruined by a sudden rain – our first one in Thailand! – and while we waited to see whether it would stop quickly, all the outdoors tables under the canopy and decent tables inside were already occupied, so we had to sit at some tiny table in the corner inside. Luckily, the rain soon stopped and the waitresses kindly moved us back to a lovely table on the terrace.

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The only thing that brightened our time at the stupid corner table inside, was a funny episode at the next table: there was a young Chinese lady sitting there and waiting for her take-away. Suddenly, two older women approached her – perhaps, her mother and aunt, for example – and started showing her some harem pants they bought at the night market, with such delight and enthusiasm, almost jumping up and down with excitement, that we couldn’t help staring at them which made the younger woman quite embarassed, so she asked them to behave more quietly. I have to say, it’s not very often that you see such sincere and genuine joy, let alone when it’s caused by two pairs of pants! 🙂

Posted in Asia, Chiang Mai, English, Thailand

Thailand – Day 5

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

22 March 2018

And once again we had to forget about our sundresses and put on our elephant harem pants purchased in Bangkok, as pretty much the whole of today is dedicated to temples in Chiang Rai and its environs.

In general, there are lots and lots of temples in Thailand, people seem much more religious than, for example, in Vietnam or China, and it’s much more common to see monks everywhere. That’s quite understandable – the country hasn’t been colonised recently, it has no communist past or present, so obviously, religion hasn’t been historically oppressed. And by the way, Buddhism here seems to contain elements of Hinduism.

The first temple we went to was Wat Phra Singh, founded in the 14th century. The name of this temple comes from the golden Buddha image, almost as famous (and as ‘well-traveled’) as the Emerald Buddha. Our guide Dino said that the temple’s architecture is in Burmese style.

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What was specifically remarkable about this temple is the large number of stray dogs that are fed here, apparently with rice, given their state of utter apathy; and sal trees, sacred to Buddhists, with large and very fragrant flowers.

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From here we headed to another temple – Wat Phra Keo, or the temple of the Emerald Buddha. Yes, yes, it has the same name as the one we saw in Bangkok. The temple is very old and was originally called something else, but in the 15th century, it was here, among the wreckage of a stupa split by a thunderbolt, that the Emerald Buddha statue, believed to be of divine origin, was found. Since the 18th century and up to this day, the statue is in Bangkok, just where we saw it, but before that it traveled a lot around the territories of Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia. Dino talked about the statue’s displacements in the most thorough details – who and when took/stole it, who robbed whom etc. – but we didn’t even try to memorise all this, especially since he wasn’t the most interesting narrator ever…

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The Chiang Rai temple currently has a jade replica of the Emerald Buddha (in fact, as you may remember, the original one is also made of jade) but at least, unlike in Bangkok, you can photograph it.

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Right here, on the territory of the temple, we noticed a pond with turtles and spent quite a while watching one particular small, but proud turtle trying to crawl towards the fence, walking on the heads of its fellow turtles.

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The third temple we saw was really the best – it was the White temple, very beautiful and unusual. It’s quite new, having been built in 1997, and in fact I would rather call it a modern art exhibit in the style of a Buddhist Temple.

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The white colour represents spiritual purity.

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To get into the temple itself, one has to walk along a bridge past the “hands of sinners” sticking out of the earth – very symbolic.

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Right next to the temple there’s a museum containing paintings by Chalermchai Kositpipat – the artist who built this temple with his own money. The paintings are quite interesting, many depict paradise with different buildings in the same style as the White Temple, or mythological animals.

The gorgeous gilded building on the territory of the temple is nothing more than the ‘happy room’ (or rather a whole happy palace!), that is, a toilet.

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Fortunately for us, the thickest crowds of tourists started arriving just as we were leaving – most probably from Chiang Mai – so we were really lucky to walk around and take pictures without them.

The White Temple was our last stop before we drove off to Chiang Mai – we had already checked out from our Chiang Rai hotel this morning and loaded our suitcases in the car. We stopped on our way for lunch, again in a cheap roadside cafe, with a hot spring next to it. In one fenced well, the water was boiling and bubbling up, another one was used for cooking eggs, and there was also a bigger section of the spring which was cool enough to put one’s legs into it, which is supposedly very good for health. Some people managed to sit knee-deep in the water, but I was barely able to dip my feet for a couple of seconds, as the water was very hot – around 50 degrees Celsius – the exact opposite situation of yesterday’s pool visit in Chiang Rai!

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We arrived at our hotel in Chiang Mai at about 3pm. The hotel is located next to the night market, so there are lots of market stalls, massage parlours and bars around.

The hotel has two excellent swimming pools, and this time we had better luck and managed to take a dip. And we knew right away that we’d be more lucky – unlike in Chiang Rai, the poolside area was full of people.

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Our tour programme for the evening included a trip to the street food market and dinner right there. We tried pork satay (i.e. pork skewers) with peanut sauce, snapper fish in salt and some pork dish with rice. It was quite tasty, although not necessarily much cheaper than in a restaurant.

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On the way back to the hotel our guide Dino took a longer route so that we could walk around the Old Town, which we didn’t enjoy much – there was little to see in the dark, plus we wanted to rest a bit and enjoy some guide-less time.

Once we said goodbye to him, we went for a drink at one of the bars near the hotel, but left very quickly – the place seemed a bit dodgy, with a few foreign men and a lot of half-naked local women (if they were all women, of course), rushing with open arms towards every white man in sight trying to lure him into the bar. It seems that all the bars around are like that, and many are even completely empty, except for the stacks of women waiting at the entrance.

Posted in Asia, Chiang Rai, English, Thailand

Thailand – Day 4

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21 March 2018

Today we left our hotel at 8am for our first excursion in Chiang Rai and headed up north, to the Doi Tung Royal villa with a beautiful garden.

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The garden is one of the successful projects of the late Queen Mother, who tried to combat drug trafficking in this dysfunctional region, bordering Myanmar, by increasing employment.

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And indeed, the garden is very beautiful. At an altitude of 1300 m above sea level, it is much cooler than Chiang Rai itself, and full of the most diverse flowers ever – predominantly European, but including some local orchids too.

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The actual royal villa, where the Queen Mother used to live, is located further uphill. We went up to the residence – again, strict dress code had to be followed there and we had to cover up – and went inside. I managed to take one photo before a lady from a French tourist group – the only tourists apart from us, I wonder where the crowds of Chinese tourists are? – warned me that this was prohibited.

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The residence is essentially a huge wooden hut, the entire interior is also made of wood. Some of the Queen’s personal belongings are exhibited, in particular tools for embroidery and pottery. The balcony provides stunning views of the garden that we saw before.

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There is another attraction at the very top of the Doi Tung mountain, where we had to get by car. These are two stupas in a typical Lanna style, erected as far back as the 10th century and containing Lord Buddha’s relics – namely, his collarbone.

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There is also a temple next to the stupas, very intricate from the outside, but not particularly remarkable inside. As for the stupas themselves, we couldn’t come close to them – women are not allowed to.

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By the way, our guide Dino told us that these stupas were especially sacred for people born in the year of the Pig (or Elephant) according to the Eastern Zodiac. And for each of the zodiacal animals, there are respective stupas all around Indochina. It is believed that everyone should visit the stupa corresponding to their zodiacal animals and pray there at least once during their lifetime.

On the way back down to our car we descended a stepped alley with lots and lots of bells of different sizes at the sides.

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It was already lunch time, and we stopped at some roadside eatery. I had read somewhere that in Thailand the most delicious food can be found right in such non-glamorous places (in China as well, by the way – as confirmed by myself), and it turned out to be exactly the case! We got two servings of spicy chicken noodle soup, and we liked it a lot. And it cost us 70 baht for two, which didn’t even make 3 USD!

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After lunch we drove to the town of Mae Sai at the very border with Myanmar. Dino said that Thai, Burmese, Indian, and Chinese people live here, and everyone gets along very well: Muslims, Buddhists, and Christians. In Mae Sai we visited a jade shop and walked past a street market, which, apparently, Dino himself was much more interested in than we were.

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But what was really interesting to see was the gate separating Thailand from Myanmar. We asked, how far away from here the Golgen Triangle was – that is, the place where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet. We were told that it was a 35-minute drive, for which we’d have to pay extra to the driver and that we’d still need to get permission to get on a Mekong tour boat.

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We decided that we didn’t want to go there and headed back to Chiang Rai. Once back at the hotel and left to ourselves, we went straight to the swimming pool, which we’d been drooling over for two days now. But it was no coincidence that the area around the pool was completely empty all the time, which we were really surprised about. The water turned out to be so icy cold that I could not even dip my toe in it, let alone get in there.

Mission unaccomplished! But we went again to get a wonderful massage in the same parlour as yesterday. There are plenty of such parlours on our street, but as we already tested this one yesterday and were very happy with it, we saw no point in looking for something else. And after the massage, as we were intending to go for dinner, we accidentally spotted a cat in the window of a small coffee shop, and then many more cats. We’d noticed this coffee shop, called Cat’n’Cup, yesterday, but somehow didn’t realise that it was a cat cafe. So how could we resist going in to have a frappe and to pet some furry purring felines!

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Well, the latter actually turned out a bummer: we were still smelling of massage oil with a citrus aroma, which by cat standards meant that we were stinking sickeningly! So they avoided us at all costs, although we did see one or two curious faces on our table!

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Then we went to have dinner in an open-air restaurant, right around the corner from the night market. It was a very pleasant place, and next to it there was a stage, from which we were entertained first with Chinese music, then with English-language guitar songs, and finally with Thai dances.

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Posted in Bangkok, Thailand

Thailand – Day 1

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

18 March 2018

Off we go to another Asian trip, with the same travel agency that organized our Vietnam tour – this time we are in Thailand! After the virtually sleepless overnight flight from Abu Dhabi (toddlers on board are an absolute evil!) we arrived in Bangkok at about 7am, found our way out of the enormous airport pretty quickly and met our guide – an elderly lady named Vanna.

Later she told us that she used to work for a large logistics company, and when she retired at 57, she entered the university and became a tour guide, so as not to sit around. She also learned to swim and play tennis at the age of 40 and driving a car at 45. We found her very nice, positive, full of energy and helpful.

First of all, we were taken to our hotel. Of course, on our way we kept staring around and comparing everything with the last Asian cities we had seen – that’s Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Bangkok looks (and indeed, is) much more developed in terms of infrastructure and economy. It’s a very green city, with lots of tropical vegetation and flowers.

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In the hotel we were offered breakfast right away, and it was quite good, but as we understood, unlike in Vietnam, here three stars mean exactly three stars, and you don’t get an abundance of all kinds of fruits, dim sums, sushi rolls and whatever else your soul may desire.

Then we were given 40 minutes to get ready, and right after that we went on a city tour. What immediately caught my eye were photographs of the late king, deceased two years ago, all around the city. Vanna said that he was not just a king for them, but almost like a father, as he cared a lot about the people. For a whole year after his death, the entire nation wore black and white as a sign of mourning – not because they were forced to, but voluntarily.

The first item of our programme was the Grand Palace – a complex of buildings, with temples and pavilions, built in the 18th century. There is a strict dress code on the premises: knees and shoulders must be covered. Given the thirty-plus degree heat, it doesn’t feel extremely nice but is not fatal. What spoils the impression a bit are crowds and crowds of people, mostly Chinese. I wrote this phrase – and felt deja vu, remembering how I had written the exact same thing about the Forbidden City in Beijing. Here as well, 99% of the tourists seem to be Chinese, Vanna said that it gets this crowded all year round, and even worse so during the Chinese New Year.

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The highlight of the palace complex is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (or Wat Phra Kaew), where taking photos was not allowed. The Emerald Buddha is actually made from a solid block of jade (as for emerald, it’s not even suitable for carving), his clothing varies depending on the season, which there are three of in Bangkok (winter, summer and rainy season), and it is the king himself who “dresses” the Buddha. In general, the statue is quite small, only 66 cm, and according to a legend, was found in the 15th century in Chiang Rai among the ruins of some pagoda, then transported to Chiang Mai (we are going to see both cities, but at that time they did not belong to Thailand) and to a bunch of other places, before finally making it to Bangkok. The figurine is highly revered in Thailand and even considered the Palladium of the Kingdom, which is said to stand for as long as the Emerald Buddha is in Thailand.

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Vanna keeps drawing our attention to elements of the architecture, as we are examining various stupas and pavilions. Everything is made by hand, whether it’s ceiling paintings or porcelain shard mosaic work.

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Some buildings are purely in Thai style – this is evident both from the shape of the roofs and the abundance of gold in the finish. Others are in Cambodian style, with more pointed domes and without gold, although also with a very rich finish. There is even a model of the Cambodian Angkor Wat temple.

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One group of buildings includes a newer palace built in European style in the 19th century – after a European trip, King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) wanted to demonstrate that in Thailand (or actually, Siam back in the days), which unlike its neighbours in Indochina and thanks to Chulalongkorn’s politics, wasn’t anybody’s colony, they could build at the same level as in Europe.

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At the exit from the Grand Palace, we saw numerous wall paintings from Indian mythology – in general, Indian influence is largely felt here, even Buddhism seems to be in its Indian form, not Chinese like in Vietnam.

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After the Grand Palace we took a boat across the river to the Temple of Dawn (or Wat Arun). Here we saw Buddhist monks, some of whom were young boys – probably novices – having lunch. They are allowed to eat only twice a day and only before noon, and also women aren’t allowed to touch them.

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The dome of the temple is in the Cambodian style and also decorated with porcelain shards. Vanna said that back in the days the royal court ordered porcelain tableware from China, and far from everything survived on the way, so this is how the broken crockery was utilised.

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Today’s last stop, not included in our tour programme, but suggested by Vanna, was a visit to a gem factory to purchase jewelry. We bought silver jewelry – gold was either too expensive, or too inconspicuous.

On the way to our hotel, we popped into a restaurant nearby and tasted the local versions of the famous tom yum soup and green curry. Delicious but spicy! And then, after a hearty lunch and a sleepless night, we immediately went to bed and slept for 2-3 hours, until it was time to get ready for the dinner cruise on the Chao Praya River. Vanna and the driver were already waiting for us, and we drove right to the pier.

There were quite lot of people on the cruise boat, but fortunately we had a table on the open upper deck, and not on the closed bottom one (although, perhaps, this wasn’t sheer luck, but rather what our ticket included). The cruise was very pleasant – there were small kerosene lamps burning on the tables, the buffet dinner was delicious, we passed by the Grand Palace and Wat Arun, which we had seen before and which were now magnificently illuminated, and in the meantime we were entertained by the cultural programme: the singer was singing famous languid ballads (including ones in Chinese – probably also famous, just not to us), and then we say a mini ladyboy cabaret show.

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Posted in Asia, English, Hanoi, Vietnam

Vietnam – Day 7

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

11 June 2017

Once again we’ve had a very intense day, and our legs are almost falling off. As usual, the morning started with a breakfast, a very varied and tasty one, like we’re already used to. At 9am, Sunny was waiting for us at the hotel reception for a tour of Hanoi.

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We were offered two museums to choose from: the History Museum or the Ethnology Museum, and we chose the latter, which turned out to be an excellent choice. What was especially good was that Sunny went with us and made very interesting comments about most of the exhibits.

The museum is dedicated to the culture and lifestyle of 54 different nationalities officially recognised in Vietnam, 86% of which are viets.

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Hmongs, for example, still have the custom of kidnapping brides. The kidnapped girl is brought to the house of the potential bridegroom, where she is locked in a room for three days, after which she is unlocked and free to leave. If she does, the rejected groom either switches to another “victim”, or kidnaps her again, but without the chance to leave this time. But in this case, she can demand a huge ransom for herself, whether it’s 300 or 3000 buffaloes, and if the groom can’t afford to pay that, his family becomes the laughingstock of the whole community.

The architect, who designed the museum building, was so impressed by the sight of a peasant on a bicycle loaded with hundreds of fishing baskets, that she bought the whole batch along with the bike itself.

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One of Vietnam’s major ethnic minorities are Tai people, akin to the Thai. A woman is very highly regarded and revered much more than a man in the Tai culture – there is even a house decoration, consisting of small bags, hanging on the window, according to the number of girls in the family.

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As for the roofs, these are decorated with such crossbred sticks as in the photo. A newly married couple would use the simplest version – the first on the right in the photo. When the wife becomes pregnant with the first child, the decoration changes to one like the first on the left, and then, when the child is born, like the second on the left. The house owners are free to do this themselves. But the remaining two decorations are awarded by the community, depending on this family’s contribution to the community life: the greater it is, the greater the chance to get more “antlered” sticks.

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The Yao people’s tradition obliges all boys to complete the male initiation ceremony when they are about 14, after which they are considered full-fledged men, are allowed to participate in community meetings etc. Without this ceremony, even a 50-year-old man has the status of a boy – and the rights of one too! By the way, it’s interesting how community is mentioned in connection with almost every ethnicity here.

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The second part of the museum is open-air, where we get the opportunity to see traditional houses of different nationalities. And, according to Sunny, these houses were brought from the respective regions, and not built specifically for the museum. In the Cham house, we feel a cognitive dissonance evoked by a TV set hanging on the wall, amid a simple and traditional interior. I understand that there is nothing strange about this, but on the other hand, Sunny himself, pointing to a picture of an ethnic minority representative in traditional clothes with an American T-shirt visible underneath them, tells us how surprising he finds it that when asked where they get such clothes, these people respond that they do it online. He also notes all the time that the state and society have done a lot to improve the lives of these isolated peoples, who have a very traditional lifestyle and who don’t always come into close contact with modern civilisation.

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A traditional house of the Viets must have an altar where the ancestors are worshipped. And the daughter-in-law of the family is not allowed to pray there, because she has her own ancestors. In one of the pantries, a collection of dolls made of some kind of light wood, perhaps cork, is collected – these are the dolls for traditional water puppet shows, one of which we were to see in the afternoon.

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The house belonging to the people of the Bahnar is the highest here, about 20 metres. It’s not a residential house, but a communal one – it should be the highest in a Bahnar village and no one has the right to build higher.

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And the longest house is that of the Ede people. I thought right away that it looked somewhat Indonesian, and almost immediately Sunny explained that the people are akin to the Indonesians. They also put the woman in the first place, which is why the most honourable places in the house, and the wider and more comfortable staircase are for women, and a woman’s breast is sculpted on the latter, so it’s pretty self-explanatory. Actually, the reason why the house is so long is because each daughter is entitled to a separate room, where she lives alone before her marriage, and with her husband thereafter. The sons all share a common room, as after marriage they will move into their wife’s house anyway.

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There is also a tomb, pertinent to the Giarai people, and it features figurines depicting all stages of a human life, placed around its perimeter.

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We spent around two hours in total in the museum, and as I already said, absolutely didn’t regret our choice, as the visit was very interesting and informative. From there we headed to the Temple of Literature, which was founded as early as in the 11th century and which had the first university of Vietnam in its territory.

There is a tiger depicted on one side of the gate and a dragon on the other, and Sunny explained that any place with these two animals present on the gates (the tiger should be descending from above and the dragon is together with a koi carp) is somehow connected to science and education.

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The temple has been destroyed several times, including during the Indochina War, so almost everything that we see here was reconstructed. As for the residential premises for students, for example, these don’t even exist any longer. Only one of the original buildings remains, and it’s also depicted on a 100,000-dong bill.

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The best students used to get selected for prestigious government jobs, with their names immortalised on special stone steles. For that the students had to pass difficult exams, some of which took years to prepare for, and the examinations were conducted in several stages, the last one being assessed by the emperor himself.

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The temple is dedicated to Confucius, hence his statue here. But apart from him there are others, for example, on the upper floor there are statues of the monarchs who contributed the most to the development of the imperial academy.
Sunny explained the difference between a temple and ta pagoda, but I still can’t say that it’s crystal clear to me. It seems like a pagoda is an exclusively Buddhist place for worshipping only, whereas a temple can also be Confucian, like this one, or for worshiping real people or even one’s own ancestors, and can be used not only for worship, but also for meditation or even community gatherings.

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After a lunch break, which consisted of the freshest spring rolls with prawns and pineapple and delicious beef noodles, we moved to the French Quarter. Here, of course, you mostly see colonial buildings rather than the narrow houses attached to one another, as in other places.

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We were brought here to see the house where Ho Chi Minh lived, and walking across a fenced square with a flag, we see his mausoleum. The mausoleum is open for visits in the mornings several days a week, and we were offered to come here this morning, but we would have had to queue for a couple of hours, as it is Sunday, so we refused. Sunny told us that in Vietnam, especially in the south, there is a very ambiguous attitude towards Ho Chi Minh, but he personally respects him and believes that he has done a lot for the people.

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Next, we went to the botanical garden nearby, where the house museum is located, but first we saw a luxurious presidential palace in colonial style, which was built by the French, with tax money. Later, the palace was painted in a much brighter tone of yellow than what would have been appropriate for a French colonial building: the palace was to be seen among all this rich vegetation, and besides, the yellow colour symbolizes the power and the emperor in Vietnam, just like in China.

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Nowadays this palace is used very rarely and for very special occasions, yet during Ho Chi Minh’s times it was used quite extensively. However, Ho Chi Minh refused to live there, choosing a more modest one-story yellow house right next to it instead. Through its windows we could see his dining room, study and bedroom, all with very modest decor.

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According to Sunny, the leader only spent four years in this house, as it had a very bad feng shui location. After that, he moved to a wooden stilted house – located pretty much next door and which I somehow didn’t take a picture of – and lived here for eleven years until his death. By the way, he lived alone, and officially didn’t have any children, although he was married, but Sunny claims that he has an illegitimate son who still lives in Hanoi and who the government still refuses to officially recognise as Ho Chi Minh’s son.

There is yet another attraction in this garden, a much more ancient one that has nothing to do with Ho Chi Minh: it is a pagoda standing on a single pillar in the middle of a lotus pond and built in the XI century. There are only two pagodas like that in the world, the second one being in Thailand. In fact, later, when viewing the photos I’d taken, I got a strong feeling of déjà vu, as if I had already seen this pagoda, and then I remembered how a very long time ago I had seen a book with the works of the Russian artist Ilya Glazunov, with a sketch of this very pagoda.

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The last place, where we reached by walking, was some kind of temple, not identified by Google, with a pretty crude interior design. On the walls there are images of scary-looking people, and Sunny said that people come to this temple to appease infernal sinners, so that those don’t try to spoil their lives out of envy. This is done very generously: with fruits, ChocoPie’s and even chicken and beer. We can hear loud chants from the next room.

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We then got in the car again and drove back to the Old Quarter, where we walked right up to the Hoan Kiem Lake.

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We already came here yesterday, but as I wrote, didn’t enjoy it too much, having to push through the impassable crowd. Today, there were much less people, and besides Sunny took us to the Ngoc Son temple, located right on the lake. Once again we saw the same kind of tiger and dragon on the gates, indicating something related to education.

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The lake is home to a rare kind of turtles, and the name Hoan Kiem literally translates as the Lake of the Returned Sword – according to a legend, General Le Loi received a magic sword that helped him repel the Chinese attack, and then a golden turtle surfaced from the lake and took the sword back, deciding that the General no longer needed it and had to return it.

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The Ngoc Son temple itself is dedicated to the hero Tranh, who defeated the Mongols in the 13th century, preventing them from seizing the country. Sunny said that there are three historical figures who are considered the “fathers” of the Vietnamese people: the emperor Lac Long Quan, believed to be the ancestor of all the Vietnamese; the aforementioned hero Tranh and, of course, Ho Chi Minh.

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After the temple visit we had about 45 minutes of free time, which we spent walking along the lake and watching the locals.

And then we went to see a water puppet show. The idea of a water puppet theatre is that the actors hide behind a screen, knee-deep in water, and control the puppets with long bamboo rods, which can’t be seen under the water. Obviously, the culture of such performances originated in rice fields. We were shown a dozen of acts, including separate dances of a dragon, a phoenix and a unicorn, and then one featuring all three plus a turtle (these four animals are considered sacred in Vietnam and are symbolic: the dragon for power, the unicorn that looks pretty strange and doesn’t even have a horn – for peaceful life, the phoenix for beauty, and the turtle for longevity), scenes showing peasants growing rice or repelling a fox trying to steal a duck from them, Le Loi returning the sword to the turtle, etc. The whole performance was accompanied by national instruments and singing, very interesting.

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After the performance, we said goodbye to Sunny and went to have dinner at the Ngon Villa restaurant, where you can pay 360,000 dong, or about 15 USD and choose anything from the menu in any quantities (out of dishes marked with one and two asterisks – for those marked with three we’d have had to pay 580,000). So we tried meat and chicken cooked in different ways, a jellyfish salad (which we didn’t like), baked oysters, clams, snails (didn’t like them either) and a dessert of coffee jelly with coconut milk. Unbelievable, but this was our most expensive meal in Vietnam so far.

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Posted in Asia, Danang, English, Hoi An, Hue, Vietnam

Vietnam – Day 5

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

9 June 2017

The day has been very intense, but, to be honest, with the occasional feeling that everyone wants money from you. In Ho Chi Minh City this feeling wasn’t there and we even got the impression that Vietnam is a country not yet spoiled by tourism, because this industry is still developing here. But the further you move to more tourist places, the more this impression is dissipated.

I’ll come back to that, but first things first. In the morning, we checked out of our hotel in Hue and headed to see the imperial tombs nearby.

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Today we have a new guide, a young man named Nam, who seems very diligent. Right on the outskirts of the city, we saw a lot of aromatic sticks for temples being sold along the roadside, and he asked the driver to stop the car so that we could see how they are made. Of course, the seller immediately started actively persuading us to buy regular souvenirs…

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As I said, according to the programme, we had mausoleum visits planned, and the first one was the mausoleum of Tu Duc, who was the fourth emperor of the Nguyen dynasty and the last emperor of independent Vietnam – his successors ruled the French colony already. The presence of the ruling dynasty was perfectly acceptable for the French, since it facilitated the governing of people, so they didn’t get rid of it.

The mausoleum was built when Tu Duc was still alive and is not just a tomb, but in fact a whole complex that functioned as the Emperor’s summer cottage until his death, and later became home to his numerous wives and concubines.

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By the way, despite the fact that Tu Duc had a hundred or two wives and concubines, he did’t leave any offsprings, so his nephew inherited the throne after him.

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Interestingly, no one knows where exactly Tu Duc is buried in the mausoleum – it would seem logical that if there is a tomb, then that’s where he should be buried, but Nam explained to us that the emperor was clever and, considering the amount of treasures to be buried with him, he ordered to dig numerous tunnels under the territory of the mausoleum and bury him in one of them, so that no one knew where exactly. Nowadays, although with modern technologies determining the exact location wouldn’t be much of a problem, the government specifically decided not to do so.

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Our itinerary assumed that next we would go see the tomb of his grandfather – the very Minh Mang that I already mentioned in connection with traditional medicine. But Nam pointed out that even though the standard programme includes this mausoleum because of its convenient location, it is too similar to the first one, and, perhaps, we would find it more interesting if we went to see something different. So, he suggested another mausoleum instead, located slightly further – that of Khai Ding, the 12th and the penultimate emperor of the Nguyen dynasty, who ruled in the early 20th century. We agreed.

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This mausoleum was indeed completely different – the architecture contained mixed elements of both traditional Oriental and European styles. The territory was quite small in comparison with the previous complex, which had pavilions, gardens and a lake, but the mausoleum took 11 years to build, whereas the previous one took only three.

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This is not surprising at all, because the tomb itself is truly luxurious: the walls are decorated with various types of ceramics – local Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese – and the ceilings are painted with 99 dragons, in such way that you can’t track the beginning and end of each.

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So, the buildings are impressive, I could totally have walked around here for a long time if it hadn’t been for the unbearable heat, which made me want to get back into the car as quickly as possible.

It’s time to say goodbye to Hue and move on, heading to to Hoi An, where we should spend the night. But on the way to Hoi An there is still much to see!

The road started climbing up the mountains, and the places around were becoming more and more picturesque. We stopped every now and then to take pictures, then had a short comfort stop in some roadside cafe, which was part of a family business for production of oysters and pearls – right here, across the road, there was a large shallow lake where the molluscs were bred.

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There is actually a tunnel through the mountain, but we drove over the Hai Van Pass instead to enjoy the picturesque views of the green slopes and the sea.
At the summit of the pass we made a photo-stop yet again, as there are some ruins that used to be a French fortress, and later an American bunker.

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The road from Hue to Danang, where we are going, takes two hours. We don’t stop in Danang itself, but Nam told us that the city is quite new, industrial, and has a large seaport – back in the days, the port was located in Hoi An, where we are heading eventually, but the French transferred it right here.

Actually, back when we were booking our tour, we made a special request to visit Danang, as we wanted to see the statue of Lady Buddha. That is why we were taken to the Son Tra mountain, also known as the Monkey Mountain, where this statue is located. Besides the statue, there is a whole complex with carved gates and the Linh Ung pagoda.

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The pagoda is quite new, built in 2010, and the statue is even newer. I must say, Lady Buddha is very impressive, and no wonder: it is 70 metres high, made of a single piece of marble and can be seen from a long distance, almost 35km. It’s facing the bay, since it is supposed to protect sailors – it resonates with the Chinese goddess Tin Hau, perhaps the idea is even inspired by her. I was generally surprised by the idea of a female Buddha, but Nam explained that even though Buddha is a man in Indian Buddhism, in the Chinese version of Buddhism, under the influence of which this temple complex was built, there is also a female Buddha for balance (like yin and yang).

Apart from Lady Buddha, there is also a small Laughing Buddha statue nearby, which is said to bring good luck if you rub his belly. We stand in front of him to take a picture of Lady Buddha, and suddenly we hear loud sounds from the pond, resembling a dog barking, which turn out to be toads croaking!

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Nam suggested that we have lunch in Danang on our way to the statue, but we were anxious that it might rain like it did yesterday in the pagoda of the Heavenly Lady and ruin the sightseeing experience that we’d been looking forward to from the very beginning, so we preferred to see Lady Buddha first, while the weather was still good (albeit very hot) and have lunch later when we get to Hoi An.

Along the coastline all the way from Danang to Hoi An we saw a huge number of hotels and fancy five-star beach resorts, but even more than the already existing ones were still under construction – clearly, tourism is developing extensively in this region and in the future Danang intends to compete with the resorts of Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia.

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On the way, we made another stop, although our stomachs were already dreaming about food, at a marble factory, which there are quite a few of in Vietnam, and they showed us how marble statues were made. Looking at the statues themselves was actually more interesting than observing the production process: there were smaller replicas of the Lady Buddha statue, other Buddha statues, various animals and mythical creatures, Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary (10% of the Vietnamese population are Catholics). At the factory we were also very actively solicited to buy souvenirs, but we didn’t like the little figurines that much and the big statues would obviously be quite problematic to buy.

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Thank goodness, there were now only a few kilometres separating us from our desired lunch, and finally we stopped at some roadside restaurant. First, for some reason, we had pretty low expectations of the restaurant – probably, because it was located right next to the noisy highway and, since the owner was apparently working in the kitchen by himself, the service wasn’t too prompt – but then we were served delicious salads and grilled fish, and also treated with orange slices and chewing gum when we asked for the bill, so our opinion of the restaurant made a complete U-turn.

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What Nam told us about Hoi An was that it is an old trading city, where the big seaport was located between the 16th and the 18th. Trade with China, Japan and European countries was conducted through the port, which is why there were many Chinese and Japanese living here.

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The city is famous for silk production, so we made yet another stop, this time at a silk factory. Here we saw all the stages of silk production – first some gross white worms swarming among mulberry leaves, then the cocoons, and then the thread and the finished fabric. Right at the factory, there is also a store selling ready-made fabrics and clothes and you can also order something from a tailor and get it ready the next, or even the same day. Generally in Hoi An, as we noticed, many ateliers provide similar services.

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Finally, we got to the Little Hoian Central hotel, which turned out to be a pleasant surprise for us. The hotel is a three-star one, but cannot even be compared, for example, with London three-star hotels, where you get a tiny room and a rather meagre breakfast – this one has an outdoor pool and a spa, the room is huge, with a balcony, and the interior is in the typical Asian Colonial style of the 19th century: even the phone and the plumbing are stylised.

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Since we were extremely tired, the pool and the spa came in really handy: first we washed off all the fatigue in the pleasant water, and then once again went for a wonderful massage.

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We had the evening free, so we made a sortie to the Old Town. One of Hoi An’s features is silk lanterns, and the whole Old Town is decorated with them, which makes it look particularly cool in the evening. The Old Town is only accessible to pedestrians and cyclists, and boy is it great to finally relax from these chaotic scurrying scooters everywhere! The zone is clearly very touristy, and there are mostly shops selling souvenirs, silk clothes and lanterns. The crowd is very thick, there are lots of foreign tourists, and even more local ones: it’s summer now, children have holidays, so many families travel around the country.

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There are also plenty of cafes and restaurants, and we decide to have dinner in one of them, attracted by the nice view of its outdoor seating area among bamboos. It was a good choice – we ordered grilled fish again, and mine was wrapped in banana leaves and incredibly tasty. Plus we were entertained by lovely music: there is an international choir competition happening now in Hoi An, and the performance took place right in the street near our restaurant.

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