Tuesday, January 28, 2014

After a Hot, Sweaty Day, Who Needs a Fake Temple? I Do, Of Course!


Wat Chedi Luang, Photos by D.R.R.

 After spending all day conquering temples, I hardly wanted to go back and find the one I’d missed in the morning, but after some pineapple and watermelon, I revived and shook some sense into myself. I might not have another chance. Yes, I was hot from a full day’s “work,” but Wat Chedi Luang was the famous one. How could I live with myself if I skipped it? I couldn’t.

So back I went into the Old Town of Chiang Mai, but this time I was aggressive. I gave up on relying on the map. I got close to the area where the temple was supposed to be and started asking questions. After three tries, I found Wat Chedi Luang right where it was supposed to be according to the map. (We’d actually made it to the temple grounds in the morning, but we hadn’t explored the whole compound after being scared off by the “Do Not Enter” sign. Since we hadn’t managed to go around to the correct side, we’d missed the entrance to the courtyard and hadn’t even glimpsed the huge temple.)

Luckily, for the moment I still felt well rewarded. The brick temple was cool even though it was in ruins. It was decorated with white elephants that stuck out of the walls and that were remarkably intact. There were also huge nagas or snakeheads. Steep stairs led up to the top.

When I saw some kids on the stairs, I immediately vowed to join them. Certainly I could rustle up a few more ounces of energy.  But not so fast--they were little monk boys charged with cleaning the temple. They were de-weeding it. Small green plants were sneaking up between the bricks, and they had to be pulled out one by one. The boys had been working on the whole temple. They’d accessed the top levels by means of a rope ladder. I wouldn’t have been brave enough to try that myself!

 I shot nearly a whole roll of film as I circled the temple. I tried to catch every angle. But when I got back to the guesthouse, I found out something quite disconcerting. The lovely elephant statues I’d seen were actually reconstructions. That’s why they were so intact. I was more than a little disappointed. I thought I’d been seeing the real thing, but the original statues had all crumbled. I had to stop and question the practice of reconstruction. Worse still, I subsequently found that the reconstructions had been done in the style of Central Thailand, but most historians think the temple was originally done in the Lanna style. It turns out that this tourist business is pretty complicated!

What's been one of your own travel disappointments?

In THAI TWIST, Rachel loses her cool when she finds out that Wat Chedi Luang is a reconstruction, but Gina is too busy finding Somchai to pay attention to a silly old temple!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Too Many Temples? No, Too Few!

Wat Umong, photo by D.R.R.

            One of the biggest reasons I wanted to go to Chiang Mai was that I knew it had lots of cool temples. Even though I’m not religious, when I went to Japan, I loved visiting temples because they were beautiful and serene. They represented a way of thinking and a way of life. In Bangkok I found that the temples were equally important or maybe even more so. In Bangkok we noticed that people came to temples such as Wat Pho and the Grand Palace with the full intention of spending a whole day at the temple site. The temples were places for people to get together and relax as well as to meditate and pray. 
            Thus when we reached Chiang Mai, I had a full plan for which temples I wanted to see. Of course this was not as easy as it sounded. We arrived at the first temple, which was supposed to be Wat Chedi Luang—or did we? We saw red columns. We saw doors with big figures in gold. There was a Buddha in the earth position. On the right were cabinets with religious urns. But something seemed wrong. We asked a school girl, but she laughed and said this was the temple we were supposedly looking for. So we took a few pictures and then we kept walking. 
Wat Phra Si Luang, photo by D.R.R.

            We got to Wat Phra Si Luang, one of the main temples. The red-carpeted structure had a Big Buddha inside with ten or so little Buddhas below. The roof had red beams which contrasted with white columns.  There was a pretty, smaller temple to the left side, and a smaller Buddha flanked by two more Buddhas and gold lotus blossoms.  A man and his son unwrapped lotus blossoms in big leaves to put in the pots before the altar.  In the corner was a vacuum and a monk.  Even temples get dirty!
            Then I had to let my poor tired friends stop for lunch even though I hated wasting the time for something so mundane. But then we proceeded to Wat Hua Khuang, Wat Lam Chang, and Wat Chiang Man. Wat Chiang Man not only had elephant statues, but it had its own elephant temple! It was very cool.
            By the time we’d visited Wat Umong, a temple whose name we couldn’t discern, and Wat Phan On, I conceded we might be done for the day. We headed back towards our guest house, but when we stopped for postcards at the edge of Old Town, I found views of the real Wat Chedi Luang. That’s not where we’d been in the morning at all!

Wat Chiang Man, photo by D.R.R.
   While my hot, tired, and footsore friends returned to the guest house, I retraced my steps until I finally reached the elusive Wat Chedi Luang. Luckily, it was worth the extra effort.
            For my fictional version of Thailand, a novel called THAI TWIST, please see http://www.drransdellnovels.com. Indeed, the protagonists visit a couple of temples--but not all of them!
            When have you had the most trouble finding an iconic site? If the Eiffel Tower weren’t so high, I would probably have trouble finding it too!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

My New Year's Day in Bangkok

Grand Palace Guards, Photo by D.R.R.
Before my friend and I traveled to Thailand, we’d already read about the famous sanuk, the fun-loving attitude of the Thai people. We’d heard that they liked to make jokes and have big get-together. Our own fun started when the cab driver who took us from the airport to the city insisted on treating his cab as a roller coaster! But where we really got a sense of this Thai spirit was on New Year’s Day in Bangkok.

We had decided to revisit the Grand Palace that day because we were sure we’d missed a lot of details during our first visit some time earlier. We also wanted another chance to glimpse at one of the most famous icons of The Grand Palace, the statue of the Emerald Buddha.

This Buddha carved out of jade was only two feet high, but he was culturally important because he’d come to Thailand in the late 1700s after residing in several other countries along the way. He even had different clothes to wear according to the weather: summer, winter, rainy season. He sat high up in the corner of a temple where a light shone on his case. Normally people would go into the temple, say a quick prayer, and then make way for other visitors.

Wat Phra Kaew (left), Photo by D.R.R.

The only problem was that my friend and I had made a grave miscalculation. We didn’t realize that Thai people celebrate Western New Year’s in addition to their own New Year’s, known as songkran, that would take place in April. It never occurred to us that many townspeople would have the day off or, even more importantly, that they would all be piling into The Grand Palace to see the Emerald Buddha.

Model of Angkor Wat, Photo by D.R.R.
The Grand Palace is actually a huge complex that houses museums, the royal palace (now used ceremoniously), pagodas, a library, and a variety of courtyards. (It’s actually easiest to understand the Emerald Buddha from a life-size replica that’s inside the museum. The museum also has copies of the wardrobe.) The complex is filled with fanciful architecture including three-story high giants who guard the entrance and a generous supply of elephant statues. It also has a model of Angkor Wat, the important Cambodian temple that was under Thai rule until the French colonization.

The key attraction of the whole complex, though, is the Wat Phra Kaew, which houses the Emerald Buddha. It was hard to work our way into the temple due to an unruly line that stretched out the door and across the front of the building. Although we only managed to spend a few seconds inside before being swept back out by other visitors, 

Grand Palace Festivities, Photo by D.R.R.

I loved the enthusiastic crowd that bustled around. The day was bright and spirits were high. By visiting the Emerald Buddha, the townspeople expected to ensure themselves of good luck for the next twelve months. My friend and I were caught up in the same enthusiasm. We couldn’t understand Thai, but we could easily understand the cheerfulness radiating from all the natives.

Indeed, it was the start of a wonderful year.

Read more about Thailand in my novel THAI TWIST. The novel recounts the adventures of two sisters traveling through the country on a mission to deliver a small elephant statue to a long-lost relative. 

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