Wat Rong Khun; possibly the coolest religious building in the world.

I already posted way too many pictures of temples from my Northern Thailand visit. But I will do it again, because this is very different. Unlike most temples I previously visited, this one is not 700 years old. Construction only began in the late 1990’s. Once more, in order to have the place to myself, I rented a motorbike and drove the 15 km or so between Chiang Rai and the temple before dawn.

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You will not see this if you go on a tour at noon.

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The temple is the idea of a successful Thai painter, Chalermchai Kositpipat, who designed the temple and had it built with his own money. You know how 99.99% of visual artists also work at Starbucks to pay the rent? Well, he’s the other 0.01%. He already sunk the equivalent of over a million US$, and the project is far from over. It is known as Wat Rong Khun.

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In fact, it may not be over until 2070! Thailand’s version of Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia (which I never visited because the line-ups are always too damn long). Eventually it will include a number of buildings, complete with a learning centre and even a monastery. Continue reading

Cages protect you from wild animals. Unless you are also in the cage.

First of all; is it a good idea to put tigers in cages so people can go pet them? I honestly asked myself that question, and I will give you my answer later. But first, the tigers.

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Tiger #1, handler and photographer. They were much less nervous than I was. The $10 photographer fee is ridiculously high, but how often does one do this? By the way, the pictures are mine, unless I am in them.

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I have seen most big cats in the wild, but never tigers. I think they are the most awesome, beautiful species of big cats out there.

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And I am really amused by how “house cat-like” they behave!

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I had come mentally prepared for the idea of being in a cage with a tiger, but I didn’t realize there would be 3 of them. And as much as I was fine with having a tiger in front of me, having one behind me was a little unnerving. But not enough not to take a selfie.

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At Thailand’s Tiger Kingdom, you can chose to spend some time with baby, small, medium or large tigers (or all, if you want to splurge). I chose large.

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And they were massive! Amazing to think that this species of tigers, the Indochinese tiger (Panthera tigris corbetti) is not particularly big by tiger standards. But a fully grown male can still weight well over 400 pounds! Continue reading

Motorbike ride to a mountain top golden temple at the crack of dawn.

Doi Sutep is a mountain, but to almost all tourists in Chiang Mai, the name stands for the temple on top of the mountain, Wat Phra That Doi Sutep. I actually visited the place several years ago as part of a tour, but I decided to go again, this time renting a little motorbike so I could go at the crack of dawn.

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Pre-sunrise view of Chiang Mai, on the way to the top.

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The famous 309 step dragon stair case. When I first visited, the dragons were impressive, but grey and dull. Evidently, they have since been restored. The oldest parts of the temple date back to the late 14th century, so about as old as Chiang Mai itself. Maybe even a little bit older.

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If you zoom in, you will see the sign requiring tourists to buy a ticket for upkeep (~$1). This is unusual in Thai temples, but in any case I couldn’t pay because the counter was not opened yet! I actually went after my visit, paid and said I didn’t need the ticket. Not sure the clerk understood what I was up to. He probably pocketed the money!

Although I was the only western tourist as far as I could tell, there were lots of locals, as I think a festival of some kind was about to begin. I think a  man tried to express this as I was having a cup of tea in a street side shop afterwards. Unfortunately, his good intentions were much better than his English, so I politely nodded and smiled a lot.

There were also a lot of people going up the mountain on high tech, expensive looking bicycles, dressed in very fancy looking sports gear. Since such things are beyond the means of the average Thai, I assumed they might be Japanese tourists, who visit such sites a lot. But my prejudice was misguided; they were all well-off Thais.

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The golden stupa as the first sun rays hit it. Absolutely worth getting up at the crack of dawn.

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Of couse, it is also beautiful at noon, but nothing like this. Continue reading

Chiang Mai 1: temples, temples, temples, Thai food.

Chiang Mai is one of the most important cities in Northern Thailand. The metropole is fairly large and sprawling, but the old city and its immediate vicinity, where most tourists spend most of their time, is small and, by Thai standards, quite pleasant to walk around in. It is also famous for its night market, which I did not visit this time around. And the weather is cooler than in the south.

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The original 13th century city is still surrounded by a large water moat, with the main circular road on either side. The inside one runs counter clock-wise and the outer one in the other direction. Driving in and out of the old city, you often have to first travel in the opposite direction, depending on the location of the bridges and the one ways. I won’t tell you anything else about the place, just show you some pictures.

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The old fortifications can still be seen, mainly on the corners.

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The main attractions are the innumerable temples. If you go early, they may not be open to visitors, but in my opinion you see them at their best. Plus, I find the exterior usually more impressive than the interior.

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Instead of hordes of tourists, you may run into a monk. In this case perhaps a novice, or a skinny little monk. Actually, it’s early and he’s the one who has to fetch a bucket of water. Definitely a novice.

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I don’t know if the sites close at night, but I did read somewhere that very early visitors could be met by stray dogs who, by nature, adopt a guard dog behaviour at night. This one didn’t seem too dangerous. Continue reading

Penang, the anxious tourist’s perfect gateway to South-East Asia.

I am going to make a pretty bold statement. If you have never been to South-East Asia and want an easy introduction, Malaysia in general, and Penang in particular, might just be your best bet. The very multicultural city has just enough hustle and bustle to give you a feel for the region, without being too overwhelming. Streets can be a little chaotic, but not so much so that you can’t easily walk around them. And because of the long British heritage, English is widely understood.

This is particularly useful if you want to sample the local cuisine but have food allergies. While it is reasonably easy to find, say vegetarian food anywhere in South-East Asia, relying on the limited English skills of a Cambodian or Vietnamese waitress to guard against your serious allergy to, for example, sesame, is not the wisest thing to do. So you end up, like someone I know, eating a lot of spaghetti in Vietnam. That is not generally a problem in Malaysia. Of course, you can also go to Singapore, but there you will get the food experience in a very developed, “first world” setting.

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One great way to so sample the food is to go to one of the outdoors food courts. Just like in Singapore, you go to various stalls, order and pay for your food, and tell them your table number. (Excuse the bad pictures, shot with a phone in the dark).

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The best is to share a few dishes, so I went with a nice French couple I met a few days before in the Cameron Highlands. The Northern Malaysia tourist trail is fairly predictable, unless you make a stop in Ipoh, like I did.

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The karaoke show was very enthusiastic. Unlike in Singapore, the stalls are a very touristy affair – or at least this one was. I’m fairly certain all the Chinese men in the picture were tourists.

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In multicultural Georgetown, the main city of the island of Penang, you can be in China one minute, walk a few city blocks and…

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Bang! You’re in India. Continue reading

Ipoh.is.closed.

Ipoh is one of the largest cities in Malaysia and the capital of the state of Perak. It is about half way between the Cameron Highlands and Penang. I decided to spend 24 hours there just to get the feel of a non-touristy town in Northern Malaysia. As I have done many times before, I made the mistake of not noticing the day I was planning to visit.

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Sunday. This picture generally captures the vibe of Ipoh on a Sunday. Oh well! At least the place is known for colonial architecture, and that can’t be closed, so I went for a walk around the historic part of town.

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The Birch Memorial Clock Tower, named after the first British resident of Perak, James Birch. He was apparently somewhat arrogant with the local Malay chiefs, and that got him a spear through the chest.

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A big Government building. In the foreground, a monument to the victims of the 415 km Thai-Burma Railway, better known as the Death Railway. The railway was built during WWII by the Japanese forces, using South-East Asian slave labor and allied POWs. The POWs were very poorly treated and ouf of 61,700, 12,600 perished. The Asians were treated much, much worse and about 80,000 of the 170,000 did not survive. 2 years ago I visited one of the most infamous sections of that railway, the Hellfire Pass.

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Almost all the important colonial buildings are either Government offices or banks, presumably the only institutions which can afford them.

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The river Kinta, which runs through town. Continue reading

The beautiful scenery of Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands.

Before I write anything about the Cameron Highlands, I will tell you about a discovery I made at the airport. Walking around the duty free shops at Kuala Lumpur’s brand new US$1.3B KLIA2 terminal – just to kill time – I chanced to glance at the price of cigarettes.

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I don’t smoke, but $14 a carton seems like a normal price for cigarettes, if you remove all the taxes. Maybe $20?

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But this brand was almost 10 times more. Luxury Chinese cigarettes. I did not know such a thing existed.

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As I usually do when I transit in Kuala Lumpur, I didn’t visit anything or do any touristy activity, just enjoyed the food, the vibe and the glitzy malls, like this one in the process of decorating for Chinese New Year (year of the red monkey, 8 Feb 2016).

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During this trip to South-East Asia I also discovered something I had never noticed; the attraction and popularity of all things Japanese. I’ll tell you more in a couple of days.

This story is not about Kuala Lumpur, but I will mention one last thing, food prices outside the city center. I usually don’t find Malaysia especially cheap, but I don’t go were people of modest means go. At the suburban bus station where I caught my transport to the Cameron Highlands, several international and Malaysian food chains were present, but they had yet to open. So I went to a sort of cafeteria full of a mix of local travellers and bus station workers.

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Granted, this chewy bread (roti) and sauces / curries is not the most elaborate breakfast ever, but it was delicious. And look at the price: 2.85 Ringgit. That’s US$0.67, including the coffee! I later showed that to a Malaysian tour guide. “Wow, that’s really cheap”, he said. By comparison, at a Starbucks in Kuala Lumpur, a coffee alone is 9+ Ringgits.

The Cameron Highlands have been a popular vacation spot for a long time, because as the name suggests, they are high in the mountains and the higher elevation provides a welcome break from the oppressive heat of Kuala Lumpur. Continue reading