November 4, 2012

Thailand Gets Cultural

Before Bangkok was Thailand's capital city, there was Ayutthaya.  In 1685 it was one of the largest cities in the world (twice as big as London), but in 1767 it was sacked by the Burmese. Now all that remains is a modern-day town clinging to the outskirts of the ruined capital. We spent a couple of days bicycling around the ruins of the temple complexes.


It really is beautiful here, especially when the sun is setting on the wats lending them a golden hue.


It was so fun to be in Ayutthaya after having visited other ruined cities like Cuzco, Pompeii, and St. Andrews. Is this Thailand or Rome?


It's easy to get to Ayutthaya, so it seems like a must to-do on any Bangkok-bound trip. There are many wats to choose from, but here were our favorites:

Inside the island: Wat Ratchaburana, Wat Mahathat, Wat Phra Ram, Wat Phra Sri Sanphet, Wat Lokayasutha

Outside the island: Wat Chaiwatthanaram, Wat Phutthai Sawan

 
 
I can also say that after surviving our first day of bicycling through Thailand traffic, I felt alive. Why is it that we would never dream of biking in San Diego without a helmet, but here it is okay? There were waves of anxiety and then excitement when we had to weave through cars, minibuses, tuk tuks, and motorcycles…and made it out on the other side. 


Moving further north, Chiang Mai was our home base for a week and a welcome relief. 


By Thai standards it's a pretty city surrounded by a moat and a crumbling wall. The oppressive heat dropped a few degrees, things were shockingly inexpensive, and the city has a lot of activities on the menu. We would have been drowning in options but we lucked out by finding a great guesthouse (for $10 per night) with an owner who spoke English. He pointed us in the right directions.

One of our favorite activities in Chiang Mai was a full-day cooking class. We cooked six different courses and could choose one of three dishes for each course. Our instructor was super flexible and even let Steve and I go off the normal menu to make some of our favorite dishes from the night markets.   

We visited the local market in the morning to buy our ingredients and then we took to our woks, mortars and pestles.

 
It probably would have been nice to take this class a little earlier in our tour through Thailand. As soon as we had someone explaining the ingredients to us, the food we've been eating for the past three weeks finally made sense. All of the mystery ingredients suddenly do not feel so daunting. We are armed with our recipe book and ready to bring our favorite dishes (Kao Soi, Tom Yum, Pad Thai, Pad See Ew, Som Tum) back to the US.  


Just outside of town we visited a Thai silk factory and learned how silk is made. Little silkworms eat mulberry leaves, get fat, and then spin themselves into a cocoon. 


When boiled, it's the cocoon which becomes the silk thread. The process is painstaking and the weaving patterns intricate.     


On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, we paid a visit to Chiang Mai's Muay Thai boxing stadium. Outside of Bangkok the fight nights are pretty amateur -- first the women box, then the kids -- until the last fight which is of course the main event. Muay Thai a combination of kicking, punching and kneeing – the kicks deliver instant welts on the back of opponents' legs. The warm-up takes just as long as the fight itself. First the boxers make prayers at each corner of the ring, and then they do a funny dance that looks like a mix between ballet and John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. All of this while a fast-tempo clarinet sets the mood. 


We also spent the day learning how to ride Asian elephants bareback. 


When we arrived at the refuge center, the trainer taught us seven commands and gave us one practice at mounting. The next minute we were riding off on an elephant in the jungle! We got a 35-year old mamma with a 9-month old baby who followed us everywhere we went. That afternoon we bathed and played with them in a waterfall.

 
One day we rented a motor scooter to see some places scattered outside of the city. Neither one of us has ever driven a scooter or motorcycle before, so it was a little nerve racking at first. I reminded Steve that everyone who rides has had to have done it for the first time. But his reply was, “Yeah, they do it in a parking lot”. Why not learn on the roads of Thailand?


There is no road rage here. We motored along at a cool 25 miles/hour while the traffic nicely zipped around us. I think we maxed out at 37 miles/hour, which is honestly slower than I ride my bicycle. It was so easy and fun to scoot around town…what a change from feeling reliant on public transportation run by people who we can't communicate with.

We took a drive up the mountainous countryside to a temple and saw monks shaving each other's heads in preparation for Buddhist day. The following morning they were like an orange-robed army covering the city on foot, accepting alms of food from kneeling believers.


We saved our favorite wat for last. Wat Rong Khun is a strange, beautiful and controversial temple in Chiang Rai.


There are lots of unusual hidden symbols throughout.


While we visited they were still painting the inside of the main hall, but small depictions of Michael Jackson, Keanu Reeves, and Angry Birds emerging from Hell were visible. The artist hopes to have the temple complex completed by 2070. Perhaps this is the Buddhist version of Sagrada Familia


 
From temple ruins, silk, and elephants to cooking, boxing, and scootering, Thailand got progressively more intriguing once we ventured north.

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