Thailand with a local guide: the most touristy day I ever spent in Bangkok.

 

As a general rule, there is no greater advantage when visiting a foreign country than having the benefit of a local guide. Since 2012, I have met many people around the world whom I then saw again in their home city. That gave me the benefit of visiting Oslo, Stockholm, Vienna, Munich, Sofia, Brasov, Prague, Freiburg, Potsdam, Berlin, the Estonian countryside, Riga, Tel-Aviv, Melbourne, Singapore, Guangzhou and even East Timor (ok, an expat) with local residents, or at least having a beer with them (or 24 beers, each, in the case of Vienna). Unsurprisingly, these places are mostly rich, by international standards, and one certainly meets more German than Thai tourists while travelling the world. But at Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands, I went on a sunrise mountain tour with a Thai tourist – and three Germans, of course. Now that I think of it, I just realized I have never been to a German city where I didn’t know someone!

Educated at a top university in the United States, my new Thai friend vacationed in Norway last summer. Not the stereotypical Thai woman. We discussed the US Republican Primaries instead of having the normal conversation: “Canada cold? Yes, very cold”. Although she was working during the week, we got some lunch at Terminal 21, an air travel themed shopping mall. “Japanese OK? Sure”.  As I mentioned in a few of my recent stories, Japan seems to exercise a certain fascination in South-East Asia, and perhaps Thailand in particular. However, Mone lived for about 10 years in Japan and goes back several times a year, so in her case, it might be nostalgia. Anyway, I will go off on a big tangent here.

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At a restaurant famous for the tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet), I discovered this recipe involving a spicy curry I had never had before. I think it is called Katsu-karē. In a blind test, I would have thought I was having Indian food. I read a bit about it afterwards and learned that curry is now ubiquitous in Japan. It wasn’t introduced by the Indians, obviously, but by the British, mainly the Royal Navy, starting in the late 19th century, when India was part of the British Empire. Amusingly, because of this origin, it seems that in the old days Japanese people considered curry to be Western food!

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I’m happy to have tried it, but I was a little jealous of Mone’s “in-my-mind” more Japanese choice, tonkatsu with shredded cabbage.

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Another Japanese restaurant, the kind you will find in any posh Thai mall.

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Even McDonald’s, known for regionalizing its offerings, gives a Japanese (and a Thai) twist to its Thai menu!

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This is the kind of mall I am talking about, Siam Paragon. A kind of mall we certainly don’t have in Canada. Of course there are BMW and Lamborghini dealerships in it, but if you would rather be dead than seen driving such common cars, don’t worry, the mall also has  Rolls Royce and McLaren showrooms. And now I will go on a tangent within the tangent. Continue reading

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