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Vietnam-Thailand '09, Impressions & Logistics Part 2
Finally left sweltering Vientiane in April via the international bus to Udon Thani. Found the Friendship Bridge crossing to be quick and easy. Arrived at Station 1 in Udon, and had to tuk tuk it to Station 2 across town - 100 baht. Caught an 8PM departure from there to Chiang Mai , and had an uncomfortable ride through the night.
Arrived at Arcade Station in Chiang Mai around 10AM, and took taxi to Old Section of town for 80 baht. Songkran was starting in 2 days, so our first choices for hotels were booked. Ended up at SK # 2, which was OK at 400 baht for a decent fan room, though possible issues with cleanliness, and its pool attracted the “drunken spring break college crowd” of westerners.
Don’t miss the Songkran parade near Tha Pae Gate on Ratchadamnoen Rd. if you’re there for the festival. The Sunday market on same street is also a can’t miss. Rented a motorbike to go up to Doi Suthep, which was a little confusing but we found our way. Doi Suthep impressive but very, very touristy. A day walking or biking from temple to temple in the old part of Chiang Mai is a must.
My camera broke in Chiang Mai, and Denzai Trading Co. pointed me to the Nikon factory on Silom Rd. in Bangkok as the only place that could fix it. So, took the overnight bus from Chiang Mai to Morchit (northern) Station - very comfortable and inexpensive. Took meter taxi to Khao San Rd. for 150 baht.
Despite having to sneak into the city right after the big red shirt riots, I love Bangkok. I love the city’s culture; I love the ease of the sky train, taxis, motorbike taxis, tuk tuks, and the thrill of the canal and Chao Phraya boat system. Visited two outlying temples - Wat Sanghathan in Nonthaburi and Wat Pak Nam in Thonburi - and recommend both as nice, authentic and quiet meditation places. This was my first time staying near Khao San, which is not my favorite place, but I do have a strange attachment with the place. Ended up staying several times at My Home Guesthouse behind Burger King on the Tanao Rd. side of Khao San - not bad rooms. Only issue is no electrical plug in the room. They expect you to pay for it downstairs, but you can plug in while using the internet without problems. That whole ally is pretty nice, with Khao San’s best coffee at the little stand near Tanao, plus good vegetarian food at Mai Kaidee’s, #1 Restaurant, and Ethos, all right there.
After dropping off the camera at Nikon, we took the bus from Sai Tai Mai (southern) Station to Kanchanaburi. Note - in Sai Tai Mai, the ticket booths are mainly on the third floor of this bus station that feels more like a mall. After a comfortable 5-hour trip, we took a songtaew for 40 baht to the River Kwai, and found a room at T&T Guesthouse. T&T was fine but we ended up having to move a couple days later since they were booked. We then stayed at Tamarind Guesthouse - the better of the two. Overall, I was not that impressed with Kanchanaburi’s seedy factor, though it is a relaxing place, and interesting for the history. Returned several times for the clean setting and great Thai fare at the restaurant, FINE.
On the way home, we stopped for a day and night in Nakhon Pathom to visit Phra Prathom Chedi, which was quite spectacular. Nakhon Pathom is pretty drab, but the night market in the parking lot of the giant Chedi is great. Stayed at Mitr Paisal - very strange place, but can’t beat the location next to the bus stop and near the Chedi.
Next stop was Ayutthaya, which we came to via Morchit Station on a cheap public bus. I still think Ayutthaya’s ruins are among the most splendid in all of SE Asia. Stayed at Chantana House, which was fine.
From Ayutthaya, I had thought we could go straight to Khorat, but actually we ended up back-tracking to Morchit and finding a bus to Khorat from there, so the travel day was longer than expected. We could have gone to Wang Noi but thought that changing busses there might be a pain.
Arrived at the Khorat station too late to catch the bus for Phimai , so tuk tuk’d to Tokyo Mansion for the night, where we had a pleasant stay, excellent food stalls lining the street outside the lobby. Next day, we made the 2-hour bus ride up to Phimai, and found excellent value accommodation at Paradise Apartments. Get off at the bus stop in Phimai’s old town center rather than waiting until the bus station in “New Phimai”. Sai Ngam and Phimai Historical Park are both wonderful attractions, and the night market is outstanding for dinner. The restaurant/bar directly across from Paradise Apts. is also great for traditional Isan fare. Overall, found Phimai to be charming and ended up staying a few extra days.
After the return trip from Phimai, took a private bus from Khorat to Ubon Ratchathani, a slow 9 hour trip. Stayed in Ubon, a quiet and pleasant city, at Ratchathani Hotel, which was not good value for the 750 baht/night A/C room, but location is good, and the night market right across the street is phenomenal. Visited Wat Nong Pah Pong and Wat Pah Nanachat, two tranquil forest temples nearby. Returned once more to BKK on another long bus ride, and visited Wat Pho and Wat Phra Kaew on our last day. Also enjoyed walking the neighborhoods nearby Wat Mahathat and Khao San that sell giant Buddhist statues, amulets and supplies right on the sidewalk.
Flew from BKK to Saigon on Air Asia for U$50, and spent two more weeks in Saigon and Hoi An. Flew Saigon to Singapore on Jetstar for U$40 before our return to New York from there on United, easily the worst experience of the 4 airliners (JAL, ANA and Thai being the others) that have taken me to SE Asia and back before.
#1 Posted: 7/7/2009 - 02:02
Ahhhh, Dluek, this trip does not sound like fun. I hope you enjoyed it, but more than 24 hours in transit on any 30 day period of time and my fun meter is pegged.
#2 Posted: 7/7/2009 - 03:12
It was fun. Bare in mind it was over a 5 month time period. I just thought I should relay more logistical info for the purpose of Travelfish.
#3 Posted: 7/7/2009 - 10:37
Thanks again -- great post.
What was your take on Wat Nong Pa Pong and Wat Pa Nanachat outside Ubon Ratchathani? They've always struck me as two of the best wats in all the northeast.
#4 Posted: 7/7/2009 - 11:25
Have you been to That Phanom? I love that temple.
#5 Posted: 7/7/2009 - 14:43
MADMAC, sure have -- I love the place. Just uploaded a bunch of photos of Wat That Phanom I took when there on one trip.
I also like the town in general. It used to be a bit of a traveller's centre, but I think few people have the time to make it there anymore -- which is a shame in a way, but good for those who do make the effort to get there!
#6 Posted: 7/7/2009 - 16:53
#7 Posted: 7/7/2009 - 18:18
I wanted to go to That Phanom, and actually am kicking myself a bit now for not making the extra trip up there. By that time, our time in Thailand was running out and we were a little bussed out. Oh well, next time.
Wat Nong Pah Pong and Wat Pa Nananachat are both very peaceful places. Of course Wat Pa Nanachat is the official 'foreigner monestary', but it's amazing to me how open Thailand's Buddhist tradition is to foreigners in general. I spent about two weeks at Wat Sanghathan, and was the only resident foreigner at the time and I do speak some Thai, but even there the chanting books were transliterated from Pali and Thai to English, and an English translation of everything was included as well. I really just walked around Wat Nong Pah Pong and Wat Pa Nanachat this time, but next time I'd like to stay longer.
Another thing I love about visiting temples in Thailand is how unchanged they are over time. Take Chiang Mai for example - a great modern city has grown up around these ancient temples, but within the temple walls life is still being lived almost exactly as it was 1500 years ago - same robes, same bowls (I know they're metal now instead of wood but same basic thing), same customs and practices... Maybe a monk on a cell phone is the only major difference.
#8 Posted: 7/7/2009 - 23:28
Great 2 post story.
I can really identify with the 'hassles' of transport. It always annoys me that I can travel along in relative OK-ness, and every so often, some clown mucks up the booking/seating/whatever to make the journey really unenjoyable. I say to myself "you need to endure this so you can enjoy the rest'.
Not sure I agree about the 'unchanged temples'. I suggest there is real status amongst temple dwellers, and they all want to upgrade their building. So, at times of economic growth, enhanced donations allow for repainting/expansion/rebuilding/whatever.
When in Cambodia recently, I observed that the middle class appeared to be the Buddhist monks - while the rich were getting richer, and the poor were marginally better off, it was the monks who were into rebuilding at a great pace and all had mobile phones, etc.
For some years I lived in an Ashram. I there noticed that 'tradition' was used as a means to keep routine stability. But, the time given to pre-dawn chanting was a lot less in winter than summer. And, the diet wasn't only rice-and- it included ice-cream, etc... I suggest we are a bit too romantic sometimes when reflecting on what is 'tradition'.
These comments don't in any way detract from noting a great post.
#9 Posted: 8/7/2009 - 09:41
Agreed both on the 'you need to enjoy this so you can enjoy the rest', and on the 'real status amongst temple dwellers.' And temples do change - Wat Sanghathan built a space ship looking modern vihara in the last ten years, made almost completely of glass. Bet you wouldn't have seen that during the Buddha's day! Of course, everything changes... I mean, that is Buddhist teaching.
But I have found that at many places in Thailand, like Wat Nong Pah Pong, and for the most part Wat Sanghathan too, and at a lot of other temples, the old ways of the ancient Buddhist monks do live on, and there are many monks who are as genuine now as ever. Any institution has its share of status and greed, but in Thailand the good Buddhist principles remain too, and to me it's striking to see the continuation that has been upheld daily for thousands of years. I had the amazing opportunity of talking with a 95 year old Thai master, believed to be fully enlightened. I guess that, for me, these experiences are one of the only things I've found in life that are worth romanticizing.
#10 Posted: 8/7/2009 - 10:51
This second paragraph is instructive.
From time to time, I too have had the wonderful enjoyment of interacting with a guru - I suggest all that take that journey [whichever religious stream] eventually become a guru. While guru means enlightened teacher in sanskrit, these enlightened souls don't have to teach as we know teaching. Just by being with them they impart their essential wisdom.
These ARE TRULY a rewarding experiences.
Aum Bhakti Aum
#11 Posted: 8/7/2009 - 11:24
Keep in mind that the vast majority of monks are part timers... they did something else before they became monks and will stop being monks in a month or two. ALL of my neighbors (all the men) have become monks -three since I have lived here. And all stayed less than two months. A tourist might assume these guys have entered some sort of priest hood and this is now their vocation - not so for most of them.
#12 Posted: 8/7/2009 - 13:41
Very true - it is the custom for Thai men to ordain for a short period at some point in their teens or twenties to gain merit for their parents. A monk at Wat Sanghathan told me that of 34 newly ordained monks last June, all but 5 had disrobed within 6 months. Many of these "part timers" are not genuine monks in word and deed while they're ordained either.
However, there are always those who stay, and for the ones who devote their lives to reaching enlightenment, I have the utmost respect.
#13 Posted: 8/7/2009 - 14:33
John (MADMAC) and DLuek
The 'issue' of short time monks is not about monkhood, it's about parents inducting their sons into Buddhism.
My son did his 'time' as 'novice' monk while in Thailand. I learnt much about the process.
As you'd be acutely aware, teenagers go through the 'rebellion' stage. For parents, getting their son/s to enter the monastry - even for a month or so - is about (attempting) a calming of that rebelliousness. It is also a multi-generational tradition of inculcating the youngster into Buddhism (the life, the values, the belief, the commitment, etc.).
So, don't slag off at these folk, its a very positive aspect of maintaining the belief/religion. And, I suspect, this 'process' achieves results the Christians would envy.
#14 Posted: 8/7/2009 - 19:12
Didn't mean to "slag off" on the young men who ordain for short periods. It's a noble undertaking to put normal life on hold in order to learn Dhamma and be a monk for a time. Unquestionably, you're right when you say that it's "about (attempting) a calming of that rebelliousness", but like so many rituals and traditions of Thailand, this custom is also meant to accumulate merit for the son, and especially for the parents. There is actually a definitive hierarchy of meritorious deeds in Thailand's Buddhist community, and offering a son to the Sangha is believed to be one of the best things a parent can do (I believe it is considered to be more meritorious than building a new temple for the Sangha).
Still, as you say, perhaps the greatest tangible benefit of the practice is the instilling of Buddhist values into the youngster. A 21 year-old Thai-American friend of mine (he's kind of more like a little brother to me) is at the moment spending a month as a monk in Bangkok. He's what you would call a young "player", dressing up in the hottest fashions, collar turned up, spiky gelled hair, listening to rap music, partying, drinking and macking ladies all the time, sometimes getting in fights... It's amazing to imagine him currently waking up each day at 3:30 AM, eating one meal a day with his shaved head and lack of jewelry, refraining from killing mosquitoes, etc. His ego is going to be shattered! And that's exactly what he needs. I agree with you that "this 'process' achieves results the Christians would envy."
#15 Posted: 9/7/2009 - 02:24
"So, don't slag off at these folk, its a very positive aspect of maintaining the belief/religion. And, I suspect, this 'process' achieves results the Christians would envy."
You mean like one of the highest homicide rates in the world and serious problems with drugs and alcohol. Hmmmm, it must be some other aspect we envy.
Bruce, I am not denigrating short time monkhood. All I am saying is that most of these monks are part timers - that is the tourist should not be deceived into thinking a lot of these guys are something they are not.
That's one of the deceptive parts of Thailand - tourists come and see all the smiles and so forth and think the Thais have figured something out the rest of us haven't. Afraid not.
#16 Posted: 13/7/2009 - 03:46
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