Escaping Bangkok for the day, I headed up to Ayutthaya, the old capital of Thailand. I caught the 0820 train up from Hua Lamphong Station, arriving just before 1000. Picking up the requisite tourist map, I hopped across the river on the small shuttle boat and rented a bicycle for the day. I could have rented a motorbike for around an extra 50 to 100 baht but decided I rather liked being attached to all my limbs. That said I probably wan’t much safer on the bicycle, the chain of which slipped every time I started from stationary and whose back brake was questionable to say the least.
Describing how I cycled from one picturesque red brick ruin to another incredibly similar looking ruin is rather boring so I will instead sum up a few key points of my visit.
Plan for the early afternoon rain shower by eating lunch as you wait for the downpour to subside. I didn’t and found myself trying to outrun the storm as I sought shelter.
The six temple ticket was not worth the cost as I only used it at two of the temples I visited, otherwise it was a separate entrance fee.
Wat Phra Si Sanphet had a back entrance with no ticket booth. As some temples were free, I didn’t realise there was a ticket booth at the front until after the fact.
The Ayutthaya floating market is actually a tourist attraction with a 200 baht entrance fee and an elephant riding camp right next to it. In my opinion it is not worth the visit even if it is rather scenic since the touristy wares can be found at any normal market without having to pay an entrance fee.
Just cycling around the the more minor roads is rather enjoyable so take the time to enjoy oneself.
Finally, even the tourist police, can’t read the tourist map with ease, I had three trying to help me orientate myself after getting somewhat turned around.
And now for some more pretty photos:
Bangkok to Ayutthaya trains: 20 baht each way, 40 baht total.
Bicycle rental: I cannot remember exactly but think it was 120 or 150 baht for the day with a 1000 baht (or passport) deposit
Shuttle boat across river: 5 baht
Temple entrance: Typically between 20 and 50 baht each but some are free.
From Melaka, I caught the bus up to Kuala Lumpur for a few days. Arriving on the first day of Ramadan, I was assaulted with the delicious aromas of curries and BBQs from the array of food stalls directly outside my hostel. They were set up and selling food every afternoon for the month of Ramadan. On my way to Bukit Nanas Forest Reserve, I indulged myself in wondering through this small market in the process of setting up. Eventually finding my way to the reserve, I bypassed the Kuala Lumpur Tower, deciding that once one’s been to the top of one telecoms tower, one’s seen them all. Besides the visibility is normally much reduced and somewhat disappointing in comparison to the views promised in brochures and I imagine that the low hanging afternoon clouds of Malaysia do little to aid it.
Instead I ventured along the canopy walk, praying the looming storm would hold off long enough for me to finish the walk. Naturally I was halfway along the first bridge when the first roll of thunder peeled out like the battle drums of an approaching army. I picked up my pace and tried not to think about the warning signs not to enter the park during storms. Chased by thunder and darkening clouds, I found myself wondering about the likelihood of being struck by lightning and, if I survived, how cool the lightning scars would look. This was perhaps a tad morbid but standing on a metal bridge in the treetops with a storm rapidly approaching will do these things to you. I made it safely back to the main road just in time, with the rain still holding off.
Meeting a group who had entered the park just as I exited later that evening, they said how lightning had struck a couple of trees just over ten metres from them and I have now resolved not to be in any forests after about three thirty, the earliest thunderstorms normally start in Malaysia. Making my back to the hostel, I was admiring the lightning as it flickered on the horizon and waiting to cross the road when I felt the first drops of rain begin to fall. By the time I made it to shelter on the opposite side of the road, I was soaked through and a wall of falling water curtained off the outside world. Unwilling to venture out, I settled on a bench in the shopping centre I found myself in and read my book while I waited out the storm.
My first day in Kuala Lumpur finished with scrumptious samosas and a huge chicken and tomato skewer, devoured at the table in the hostel as I talked with other guests.
Day two dawned bright and early and found me planning where to start my explorations. Setting off for the Islamic Arts Museum, I caught the purple line of the GOKL buses, a free bus system the runs in the Kuala Lumpur city centre. Getting off the bus at Pasir Seni I passed the National Mosque as I walked the remainder of the way to the museum. I was unable to enter the mosque because the time I was passing by coincided with prayers, but just walking around the outside was enough to be impressed by the vast scale and simple but elegant architectural style.
The Museum cost MYR14 and was well worth a visit in my humble opinion. Unlike the art one would expect to find in the Louvre, Islamic art focuses more on making everyday objects into works of art themselves. Upon entering, I perused the models of famous pieces of Islamic architecture, including the Taj Mahal, as the melodic sound of a recitation of the Quran played in the background. The next section showcased breathtaking examples of illuminated Arabic script. In many cases the Quran but also a number of Firmans, edicts of sorts, from the Ottoman empire. Of particular delight to me is this section were a number of astrolabes and navigational tools as well as the intricately detailed ink pots and matching quill boxes.
Moving on there was a wide range of artefacts to illustrate the blending of different cultures with Islamic art, in particular, Malaysian, Chinese and Indian. This included everything from textiles and furniture to jewellery and weapons. While paintings and sculptures may be far less common in the world of Islamic art, there is no doubt in my mind that the objects created are just as beautiful as any painting, if not more so for their practicality.
Exiting the museum, I made my way to Masjid Jamek, another mosque, via the Hindu Sri Mahamariamman Temple. The temple was pleasant to look around briefly and the mosque was certainly impressive from what I could see of it, even though I could not enter. Instead, I headed to Merdeka Square where Malaysian independence was declared and which is ringed by and impressive selection of colonial era buildings and headed by a huge flagpole, proudly supporting the Malaysian flag.
Continuing on, I backtracked past the National Mosque and made my way to the Butterfly Garden. At MYR25 I felt the cost was a little steep but enjoyed my time wondering around the miniature garden jungle even if there were less butterflies than I had expected to find. Halfway round I again found myself frantically dashing for shelter as it began to rain. Fortunately there were a number of small seating areas within the garden and I was able to read my book even as the rain poured down all around me.
A quick stop to look up at the Petronas Towers and I headed back to the hostel for the evening.
My last full day in Kuala Lumpur saw me teaming up with another guest to visit the Batu Caves. We set out around nine thirty in the hopes of seeing the cave while the temperature was still somewhere around sweltering instead of Mordor on a bad day. Sadly our cunning plan was not to be. Being backpackers on something vaguely resembling a budget, we had elected to get the train rather the a Grab car or taxi. We did not however account for the varying train times of Kuala Lumpur. I for one, am used to inner city trains running on a regular and frequent schedule and did not think to check train times. Then again, I am not convinced checking train times would have made a difference.
We waited twenty minutes for the monorail to KL Sentral while two went in the opposite direction. At KL Sentral we were redirected to a free bus shuttle that was running to KTM Sentul instead of the train. We sat on the bus (blessedly air conditioned) in the station for another fifteen minutes before being told to switch to a different bus. Upon making it to Sentul we waited a further half hour before the train drew out of the station on the last leg to Batu Caves. We finally arrived a mere one hour and forty five minutes after we had set out compared to the fifteen/twenty minutes it would have taken by car.
Thus we found ourselves climbing 272 stairs up to the main cave with the sun doing its best to cook us alive. The cave was impressively huge, even with most the manmade structures within it cocooned in scaffolding. However, for me the cave was a little disappointing because aside from the size, the geological features were not amazing and almost everything else was behind tarpaulins. Furthermore, the smell of monkey urine was rather unappealing. Neither of us was particularly inclined to see all the insects and bats that call the Dark Cave home so we skipped over visiting it.
The journey back was somewhat quicker and we parted ways at KL Sentral, agreeing to meet again later. I had another long journey ahead of me. This time walking to Thean Hou Temple where the nearest public transport spots were all a uniform forty minutes away. Despite this I really enjoyed walking around the temple, perhaps my favourite in a while. It offered excellent views of Kuala Lumpur and had counteracted the fading and peeling of paint that strikes all buildings in this hot and humid climate with a fresh coat of paint. This meant lots of brightly coloured dragons perched on the eaves looking as if they could come alive at any moment.
With the long journey times these were the only attractions I visited during the day, venturing out with the same young lady that evening to watch the sunset at the Heli Lounge. Our plans were foiled once more, this time by the weather. A light shower meant we could only go up to the top deck for a brief round of photos before being ushered back down into the bar. With clouds blocking the sunset, it was something of a wasted trip although my gin and tonic was quite pleasant. The day ended with delicious feast of mango and mangosteens from a nearby food market.
Chiang Mai is well known as the city to visit in Thailand if one is looking for traditional crafts and the more ethical elephant sanctuaries. Like everywhere that has a large tourist industry, it has undoubtedly changed over the years to better accommodate the demands of travellers, it is impossible to go for a walk without spotting a hostel. Despite this, the city appears to maintain a precarious balance between the tourist and the local, selling local crafts to customers wanting that authentic piece of Thailand to take home with them. There is room for everyone to profit selling the genuine to the less genuine that looks just as good for half the price.
Night markets are saturated with goods demanding the attention of tourists and I can’t help but wonder how anyone makes a profit selling the same scarves and clothes as every other stall. By day the temples charge tourists for entry while worshipers can enter for free, an excellent scheme that helps to maintain the temples. The only issue being that “tourist” is often based on skin colour, an understandable method but it did raise a few eyebrows as bus loads of Chinese tourists walked in for free.
In addition to temples and night markets my mother and I visited San Kamphaeng Road. This road is the location of many local craft shops and at several miles long we carefully picked a few destinations within walking distanace to visit in advance. These were Baan Celadon pottery shop where we looked around the factory where celadon pottery was being made, the intricacy of the patterns painstakingly painted and carved was astounding; the Thai Silk Village which I talked about in a separate post; two silver factories, one more questionable than the other; and a lacquerware factory that was fascinating.
Something that we found a little disconcerting was how in many of the shops and factories, we were closely followed by a member of staff, ready to help at any moment. While I presume it is normal practice in Thailand, for us, who are not used to it, it came across as somewhat stifling and just made us want to leave instead of taking the time to properly enjoy looking around. The only place we were followed and it didn’t feel suffocating was the lacquerware factory, Lai Thong. We were greeted at the door to the factory and given an excellent demonstration of the lacquer making and decorating techniques before being shown into the store. Once there, while attended, we were given enough space to look at items and the members of staff were helpful but managed not to make it feel too much like we had to buy anything.
We finished up our stay in Thailand at a resort on Koh Yao Yai island near Phuket. This was a nice break and I spent most the time revising and doing assignments but at least I had a good view while doing it and the breakfast allowed me to indulge in my pancake obsession and ongoing pancake photo war with my father.
After a lateish breakfast I set off northwards towards the Confucius temple. This was really well laid out (plenty of English) and explained the basic concepts of Confucius’ teachings as well as having amazingly intricate detailing within the architecture. The temples here seem so lavish after the relative simplicity and refined grace of the Japanese shrines. The differing architectural styles have put a new wind into my sails, otherwise I think I might be fully templed out by this point in my holiday.
Emerging from the temple, I found myself caught in a large procession, all wearing matching yellow and purple hats and following a dragon towards Baoan Temple. I have absolutely no clue what the event was and couldn’t find it anywhere online when I returned to the hostel, but it was fun to watch, even with the increasingly heavy rain.
I wanted to visit Taipei Fine Arts Museum but on arriving found that it is currently closed for renovation. Unwilling to have walked through the rain for nothing, I visited the Story House next to the museum.
Built in 1913 by a tea merchant, this quaint little Tudor-style house seems extremely out of place halfway around the world from England. Inside there was an array of different Chinese woodworking plains, which as a crafting and handiwork enthusiast I couldn’t help but admire. There were a couple of lovely art pieces made from the wood shavings and I really enjoyed looking around.
With the rain only worsening, I headed to the National Palace Museum via Cixian Temple. I ended up spending the entire afternoon here, my imagination captivate by lustrous paintings and intricate carvings. My favourite exhibit was one of the temporary ones named Story of a Brand Name and was succcinctly summed up as “The Collection and Packaging Aesthetics of the Qing Emperor Qianlong”. This brevity does not do justice to the exquisite attention to detail that Qianlong afforded his collection. In the creation of unique cases and boxes for each item, new pieces of artwork were born. Small display boxes were carefully constructed to house jade marvels, each shelf specifically shaped for each piece. All in all, a trove of beauty and the part of me that strives to create order in all things was most pleased.
A close second in terms of favourites was some of the intricately carved jade and gemstone artefacts. There were also a number of ivory pieces that were stunningly carved, including fourteen balls all contained within one another and carved from a single elephant tusk. While these displays of ivory were undeniably amazing, the killing of elephant and rhinos is much less so and I was most pleased to see the following sign:
A visit to the Shilin Night Market concluded the day and left me pleasantly full with delicious street food.
Today was a relaxed affair. I briefly visited Tofukuji Temple and Toji Temple to stroll around their respective gardens before wrapping up my sightseeing in Kyoto by visiting the Jonangu Shrine. The gardens of all three were lovely, with my favourite being those of Jonangu Shrine. Instead of going into detail about each of the gardens (there are only so many adjectives one can use to describe gardens and after four days my creativity has run dry) I’m just going to leave a little montage of photos.
Tomorrow I travel down to Tanabe from where I will set out to walk part of the Kumano Kodo. This set of UNESCO World Heritage pilgrimage routes is a really beautiful part of Japan and hopefully it will be a nice chance for me to recharge my introverted batteries before continuing with the rest of my trip. I am excited to be visiting the three Kumano shrines over the New Year when there are bound to be lots worshipers doing Hatsumode, the first Shinto shrine visit of the year. Since walking isn’t the most interesting thing to write about, I will most likely leave off covering my journey on a daily basis and instead sum up my entire Kumano Kodo experience in one or two posts after the fact. So, ta ta for now and I’ll see you in the New Year, may it be a pleasant and joyful one for all.
As a tourist it is easy to jump on and off buses or trains, only every seeing the “must sees” and never stopping to look at anything else. To try and combat this, today I decided to walk between the temples and shrines that I planned to visit. This proved to one of my better ideas and, other than the gardens at Ginkakuji Temple, provided the best scenery of the day.
I started by looking around the gardens of the Heian-jingu Shrine. Sadly, while the gardens had the potential to be really beautiful, I felt that winter definitely wasn’t the intended viewing period. There were a lot of bare trellises and empty spaces that were waiting for spring so they could be clothed in greenery once more. This isn’t to say the whole garden was a dissappointment, I felt childish glee crossing the pond via stepping stones and the second half felt a little more winter orientated with a larger selection of evergreens.
From Heian-jingu I past a few minor shrines and temples and walked through a graveyard as I headed in the direction of Ginkakuji Temple. I ended up ambling next to a quaint little stream which was boarded with picturesque houses and shops. Part way along, I came across a little studio that offered the opportunity to try using a potters’ wheel and had a promising amount of English signage. Deciding this would be the perfect souvenir, I attempted to spin a (somewhat wobbly looking) bowl, which will be fired and sent back to Guernsey in due course.
After this little aside, I continued on to my original destination, speeding up towards the end so as to avoid a tour group that had just offloaded from a bus. Unlike the crush of people at the Golden Pavilion, Ginkakuji Temple had a steady flow of people that didn’t get congested around singular points. This immediately won it a few brownie points in my book and then the exquisite landscaping did the rest.
There is very little grass within most of the temples, instead moss covers the grounds and here was no exception. There was a multitude of mosses from emerald to forest green, all creating a lush carpet. The large number of evergreens kept the garden feeling alive and created a mystical air. I was extremely impressed with the attention to detail, from the veined stones used in the pathway to the bamboo grids used to discreetly hide the metal gratings of drains, no step was too far to ensure visitors felt fully immersed in nature.
I next looked around the Shimogamo-jinja Shrine, where tents and awnings were being pitched in preparation for New Years celebrations. The surrounding woodland was very scenic, though I will admit to feeling a little superstitious when a murder of crows started cawing at me.
I wrapped up the day with some rather bland yakitori skewers in the Gion district. I think in the future I shall have to avoid the “recommended for overseas visitors” option on menus.
The first thing I realised this morning is that everywhere closes on Monday. And I mean everywhere. Or at least everywhere that I wanted to visit. Hence, Deoksugung Palace, the Seodaemun Prison History Hall and Changyeonggung Palace have all been delegated to the future. After over an hour of trawling guide book, map and internet to figure out what was open I set out, revelling in the falling snow.
I walked to Jogyesa Temple via the Bosingak Belfry. The Belfry houses a bell that used to be rung 33 times in the morning to signal the opening of the city gates and then 24 times in the evening to signal their closing. I could not see the bell but there was a wall in the nearby station that explains its full history. The Jogyesa Temple is the centre of Buddhism in South Korea, and was a beautiful splash of colour in the snow. It was extremely restful to walk around and warm myself by the outdoor heaters as I listened to the melodic chants of worship.
I wound my way through snow clad streets, admiring the many hanok style buildings as I left the busiest roads behind on my walk to the Jongmyo Shrine. Arriving at the gates, I was alarmed to see a large number of people milling outside the gate but no one entering. Had perhaps the opening times online been wrong? Or was it closed because of the snow? Heart sinking, I walked closer until I saw a board bearing a list of languages, and a separate time for each. Somehow in all my reading I had missed that entrance to the Shrine was by tour only. This is done to preserve the UNESCO world heritage site. By some wondrous miracle, the next English tour was only two minutes away and within no time I had entered the breath taking shrine. I expect that it is normally picturesque, but the snow laden trees and rooftops were straight from a wintery postcard, if not better.
The shrine was built to house the spirit tablets of the Joseon kings, their queens and some of their most devoted government officials. The central stone path to the main shrine, Jeongjeon, is comprised of three lanes, the two outer lanes are for the king and crown prince, while the centre one is for the spirits to make their way along. The shrines are undoubtedly impressive and just a little imposing but I must confess it is the surrounding woodland that captivates me the most. In Guernsey the world stops at the sight of a single snowflake, but here in Seoul life continues as normal, it is only among this forest that the snow lies untouched and winter reigns.
With the tour over I head to Namsan Park and take the cable car up to Seoul Tower. This is a pleasant way to spend some of the afternoon, just meandering the various attractions, although there were a lot of “coming soon” signs. I particularly liked the Ssentoy Museum which had a large selection of Marvel figurines, models and dioramas. The view from the observation deck of the tower was rather limited but I did get a lovely aerial view of some of Namsan Park and the section of the old city wall that runs through it.
Deciding the to relax for the remainder of the afternoon I head back the to hostel, stopping at an underground shopping centre to browse a some pretty shoes and handbags.
Today dawned bright and late. After yesterday’s hike, I decided to have a more relaxed day, with considerably less walking. So after a leisurely breakfast I naturally headed to the Ten Thousand Buddha Temple north of Kowloon. While the train ride was relaxing, the 431 steps up to the temple were slightly less so. Fortunately, the marvellous golden Buddha statues that lined the path cheered me on with the promise of beautiful views and level ground when I reached the top.
Despite my visit coinciding with a group of school children who were all trying to complete some kind of questionnaire or scavenger hunt, the temple itself was undoubtedly impressive. The name of the Ten Thousand Buddha Temple is something of a misnomer as there are in fact almost 13000 Buddha statues in the main hall alone. Sadly the nine level pagoda was under maintenance and I was unable to climb to the top. Nonetheless the views were still spectacular, offering a stunning contrast between the urban and natural landscapes of Hong Kong.
After descending, I made my way back to Hong Kong Island and headed over to Stanley. This was a little nerve wracking as I had forgoton to make a note of where to disembark and of the bus number I needed to catch. There was a part of me worried that I was going to end up in some tiny village with no idea how to get back. Thankfully my memory didn’t fail me and I made it safely to Stanley.
Stanley is possibly the earliest settlement on Hong Kong as records of the initial Chinese fishing village date back to the Ming Dynasty (1573-1620). My reason for going to this scenic little town was the market. There is just something about narrow roads lined with trinkets that draws me in. I often find myself humming the one or two lines of Portobello Road from Bedknobs and Broomsticks that I can remember as I wind my way through piles of keychains, electronics and authentic looking knick knacks.
Stanley market was no different and is perhaps my favourite market so far as it truly had a mix of everything except food and I was hard pushed not to buy more souvenirs than I could carry. After thoroughly exploring it, I meandered along the waterfront, enjoying a little of the tranquillity that always comes from being near the sea. A full stomach later and I once again boarded bus and then train back to the hostel in time for an early and relaxed night before a planned hike tomorrow.
Day two rolled around and after an very early start to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat, we began our trip around what we thought was going to be the grand circuit. The map below shows the small circuit, which we had done the previous day, in red and the grand circuit in yellow. However, as we set off, the trees and temples fell away to be replaced with rice paddies and cultivated fields. After about forty-five minutes it was pretty clear that we weren’t following the grand circuit. Despite a slight worry that we were being taken to the floating village on Tonlé Sap, somewhere our driver had tried to persuade us to visit the day before, we sat back and enjoyed the passing scenery.
Fortunately for us and our laid-back attitudes, we eventually arrived at Banteay Srei, a temple well outside the most well-known parts of the Angkor Temple Complex.
In part because of the early hour and also the temple’s remote location there were very few tourists. This was not the only reason for Banteay Srei being my favourite temple. As can be seen above, the carvings in the walls of the temple and over doorways was absolutely exquisite. The details were marvellously preserved and the temple was a little smaller so we were able to explore it thoroughly. We also to the opportunity to sit down and eat out breakfast just outside the temple.
Over the years, thanks to the hard work of looters, vandals and time, a lot of statues are missing their heads. I just couldn’t resist standing in to do the job for this Devas as he pulled on the Nāga Vasuki to help churn the Ocean of Milk.
Preah Khan provided another fix for my love of taking photos down corridors, they just seemed to go on forever. While a lot of the temple was falling down there were still some extremely detailed carvings intact. It also felt very tranquil in comparison to some of the other temples.
This little gate pavilion at Neak Pean reminded me of the entrance to the river Styx in Greek Mythology, a feeling underscored by the walk across a lake of dead trees to reach the island temple.
A lot of the Angkor temples seem to have a similar architectural structure whereby four smaller buildings surround a central building or peak as shown here at Pre Rup. This layout was normally at the centre or top of the temples and then surrounded by a series of galleries.
The wonderful thing about travelling solo through hostels is that the opportunities to meet new people are endless and there is something freeing about hanging out with a group for a week, a day, or even just an hour with no commitment to be friends beyond that time frame. You can see the sights, drink together and share tales of adventure but at the end of the day you go your separate ways, a mere paragraph in each other’s lives. The drinking together is particularly apparent since hostels seem to have free beer more often than they have free water.
Anyway, temple viewing day one dawned bright and early and I set out with the three people I had agreed to share a driver with. We knew we were doing the small circuit which visited the big three temples; Angkor Wat, our second visit here but our first opportunity to see all of it; Bayon Temple with its many faces; and Ta Prohm, slowly being reclaimed by nature. However, we had little idea what else to expect. You can read about our three visits to Angkor Wat here so I’ll skip straight to Bayon Temple.
Bayon Temple is one of the must-see temples when visiting the Angkor temples. It’s covered in these faces that look out over the mass of tourists that come to visit every day. With their little half smiles, I couldn’t help but think that the statues knew more than they let on. Just what have they seen?
Like Angkor Wat, Baphuon Temple has a long causeway to walk up before you enter the temple. It definitely seems like a good way to humble the lowly visitor. It originally had a huge tower on the top but I kind of like these four arches, they make me think of magical portals to lost worlds.
Mr Bunna, our tuk tuk driver pulled over on the side of the road so we could take photos of a group of monkeys. I just couldn’t resist taking a photo of this guy chilling on a motorbike.
I’ve always found taking photos through holes or down tunnels irresistible and visiting the temples certainly provided a lot of opportunities for me to do so with, arched corridors, doorways and collapsed roofs.
These seven headed snakes are used as balustrades throughout the Angkor Temple Complex. They represent a reptilian race, the Nāga. In particular the king of snakes, Vasuki, who was used to help churn the Ocean of Milk by wrapping around Mount Meru. Artisans Angkor have a really good description of this piece of mythology.
Used as a set in Tomb Raider, Ta Prohm has not escaped the Cambodian jungle’s grasp. Without a moat to protect it from invading trees, parts of this temple have been reclaimed by nature. The real trick though was trying to get a photo of the beautiful trees in the split second between everyone having their photo taken directly in front of the marvellous interlocking roots. We were particularly unfortunate and managed to arrive at the same time as a large (and very loud) tour group but did find a moment of quite in one courtyard, at least for a couple of minutes.