Thursday, 23 December 2010

Ayuthaya vs Sukothai

Many people ask me which I prefer, Ayuthaya or Sukothai. Both are former capital cities and contain many ruins of temples dating from hundreds of years ago when the cities were in their prime. But it’s hard to directly compare the two.

A lot of people visiting Thailand are often looking for a day trip out of Bangkok and often don’t have a lot of time to spend travelling. In this case Ayuthaya is the clear favourite because it’s within easy reach of Bangkok, about 1-2 hours depending on traffic. If you have more time to spare then I would recommend Sukothai every time, not that I dislike Ayuthaya, but Sukothai is just….well….better!

Firstly, Sukothai is a lot further north from Bangkok. It’s around about a 6-8 hour drive, depending on your form of transportation and the traffic. Thus it will take a few days out of your schedule, but can be done as a stop off on the way to Chiang Mai. But because of it’s slightly more remote location, it receives far less visitors than Ayuthaya, which is a very popular day trip location for tourists and locals. On any given day you’re likely to find coach loads of the local school children milling around the temples of Ayuthaya.

This makes Sukothai a far more peaceful place to visit, and so it’s easier to get clear photos. On my visit here, over half a day I guess I probably only encountered a hundred or so other visitors. The temples are set in a historical park in well kept and fairly expansive grounds. It is completely separate from the main modern-day town. Although you can drive in the park, because it’s off the main roads there is no traffic noise or the associated dust and pollution. Sukothai has plenty of trees and so plenty of chances to get in the shade.

As I said earlier, a lot is going to depend on your circumstances and how much time you have to spare. Ayuthaya is great if you can only spare a day or two and are based out of Bangkok. It’s easy to get to and there are numerous tours. If you can spare the time, or are en-route to Chiang Mai then go for Sukothai.

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A few days in Phuket

A few days in Phuket

Phuket has a mixed reputation, partially deserved but also partially unfair. The first image that pops into many people’s minds is the overdeveloped and rather seedy stretch of Patong beach. However, remember that this is just a small part of a big island and is easily avoided if that’s not your thing.

Recently, my family and I stayed at Kamala beach, a bit further north of Patong and a world apart. Kamala is quiet, with no accommodation built directly on or behind the beach. It is a beautiful natural cove offering great photo opportunities and peace and quiet. Another advantage (for me) is the lack of vendors on the beach, here you really will be able to relax without having to refuse the Henna tattoo and doughnut sellers every 5 minutes!

We chose Kamala because it seemed ideal, having a young family. We didn’t want to be in an area that was too crowded, but still with a nice beach and swimmable sea. We stayed in the Marriott Courtyard, and it was a choice between either that one or the Marriott Courtyard on neighbouring Surin beach (I had a promotional offer to use up at one of these two hotels). As we were travelling with my in-laws (who are Thai) the choice was simple. Surin was badly affected by the Tsunami and many people died, especially in the Courtyard hotel. Kamala was left untouched. Thai people fear ghosts and that is a big reason why tourism was slow to recover in the affected areas. They wouldn’t even entertain the idea of staying at Surin for fear of upsetting any trapped souls. So…Kamala it was!

If you wish to pay your respects while in Phuket there are a few memorial sites around the island. At the southern end of Kamala there is a monument just behind the little river that runs behind the beach and a little grassed area and pavilion.

What to do in Phuket when you get bored of the beach and the hotel pool though….well there is a lot! We hired a car so it made accessing these places easy for us, but the “songthaews” are regular and there’s always a taxi or your hotel will usually arrange something for you. Of course we sampled the more family orientated activities, starting off at the rather more off-the-beaten-track Gibbon Rehabilitation Sanctuary.

This is worth a visit, even if slightly out of the way, to do your bit for a good cause. The centre is run by volunteers (European when we visited) and attempts to rehabilitate gibbons that were orphaned by poachers or kept as pets. They go through several stages of training before being released back into the wild, although of course some don’t make it. The only ones you can see are the latest arrivals who are still used to a lot of human contact, as they develop through the programme they are moved further into the rainforest and away from human contact. There are a couple of nice trails you can walk while here, a few refreshment stalls and elephant rides. If you’re interested, the staff are happy to talk to you about their programme as well.

Following on the animal theme we then visited Phuket Aquarium and it’s related attractions. Most people only look around the aquarium itself and then go, and the aquarium is fairly sizeable although beginning to look a little shabby. They do have a great selection, and some especially large fish that scared my daughter! If you’re travelling with kids this is a great way to entertain them for a couple of hours. If you’ve got an appetite for some more, the entrance fee also gets you into the “Baby Farm” as my daughter called it! It’s a building at the back of the main aquarium where they run breeding programmes for many varied species of sea life. Be careful if you go in there as the Thai’s are never that hot on health and safety, there are plenty of opportunities to fall over! And just a bit further down the road is a small facility that breeds turtles.

Phuket Zoo is, in my own opinion, a grim place best avoided. Sure if you have a little child, they probably will enjoy it and again it’s a good way to pass some time. But any older children may be upset by the cramped and dirty enclosures and the obviously stir-crazy animals. A lot of the facilities appear uncared for and dirty. This place does have a poor reputation and fully deserved, if you can….stay away.

If temples are your thing there are plenty of those to visit. We went to the Phuket Big Buddha, which is really only accessible on wheels, it’s a 6km winding road up a big hill. But when at the top you are rewarded with magnificent views all around. The Buddha itself wasn’t complete when we visited in October 2009 but was still a magnificent sight. Also worth a look in is Wat Chalong, probably one of the most visited temples in Phuket. We were treated to a procession of Miss Teen Thailand contestants in the temple grounds during our visit!

If you find that you need to hit the shops then Phuket Town should cater for your needs, as well as the nearby hyper-global-mega malls (!!) of Big C and Central Festival.

Phuket offers many superb photos opportunities and if you’re able to hire a car, I’d recommend a trip to one of the many viewpoints (they’re shown on any good map). You can get some spectacular sunset shots.

There are countless other activities such as trekking, boat trips, fishing trips, go-karting, Muay Thai fights and training camps and much more. Phuket can be a sleazy, booze trip if you want and Patong can certainly offer you that. But don’t think that this is all Phuket has to offer! You should have a great time!

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Climbing the Golden Mount

Once the highest point in Bangkok, the Golden Mount still stands out even amongst the concrete jungle that now surrounds it. This is a great vantage point to take in a 360 degree view of the city and gives you some great photo opportunities if you get a nice, clear day.

To get here, we took the Khlong Saen Saeb canal boat from Pratunam pier to Fan Faa Bridge. This is the bridge that was, for a while, at the centre of the ongoing anti government protests. After struggling out of the “cosy” boat, we stopped off briefly at the unusual Loha Hin Prasat temple, famous for a building made of iron. Took a few obligatory shots of the Democracy Monument, although the monument itself is ugly (in my opinion) it’s a symbol of struggle and everything that’s happened there.

After taking only 2 wrong turns (!) we arrived at the entrance at the base of the Mount.

Don’t be intimidated by the name, it’s a very steady climb up, the broad stairs wind around the edge of the Mount. There are several places you can stop along the way as well, to ring the bells and take photos.

We want straight up to the top and make some stops on the way down. Of course the first thing that strikes you is the golden Chedi (bell shaped tower) in the centre. Tradition dictates that it is good luck to walk clockwise around a chedi three times. So we fulfilled our obligations and joined the locals in this. Unlike many chedis in Thailand, you can actually go inside this one, the walkways are somewhat narrow and low, so any tall Westerners beware! I only bumped my head once which is good for me!

As a fan of panoramic views, I spent a good hour pottering around the perimeter taking various photos of the Bangkok skyline, picking out the many famous buildings, bridges and temples.

On the way down we rang all of the bells and took photos of the well manicured plants and shrubbery. All in all we spent a good couple of hours here and you could probably spend more if you explored the rest of the temple grounds (The Golden Mount is just one part of the larger Wat Saket compound). Happy days!

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Friday, 10 December 2010

Green's Windmill - Nottingham

Green's Windmill is a little visited gem in the Sneinton area of Nottingham, just a short distance outside the city centre (accessed by bus numbers 23 and 24).
It is a working windmill (although the brakes were on when I visited) and makes very high quality flour which you can buy in the shop. Entry is free and there is a great little Science musuem, an ideal place for kids. You can climb up four levels inside the windmill to enjoy great panoramic views of Nottingham, through the flour-coated windows! Unfortunately the viewing deck isn't open to the public ('ealth and safety Sir!).
There is a wonderful park in the grounds, great for the kids to burn off some energy. This area of Nottingham also contains some historic terraced housing with the communal alleyways, not seen so much in the UK any more.

This is well worth a visit,'s free!

Jim Thompson’s House

Jim Thompson’s House is a collection of traditional Thai style houses that were transported from various parts of the country and reassembled. They are interconnected and these days are a museum to his life and also Thai culture and artefacts.

Jim Thompson himself is the man credited with reviving the Thai silk industry. He disappeared one day while walking in the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia and was never heard from again, presumed dead. His family gave the house to the Thai Fine Arts department who converted it into a museum.

I was surprised how peaceful it is here, given its central Bangkok location. It is at the end of Soi Kasem San 2, just off the main Rama I - Phaya Thai intersection and a stones throw from National Stadium skytrain station.

You have to join a guided tour, available in several languages. This makes for a nice, cool and relaxing way to spend a couple of hours. You take a tour around the house, with the usual roped off walkways ensuring you can’t touch anything. The tour ends in the shop (as they usually do!) which sells some very nice, but very expensive silk related products.

This is one of the top sights in Bangkok, for a window into traditional Thai architecture and way of life. But at the same time it isn’t too crowded (at least not when I went!) and is an ideal tonic to the general craziness of Bangkok.

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Kanchanaburi trip – A truly moving experience

I won’t waffle on too much in this post, but let the pictures do the talking.

Kanchanaburi is around a 3 hour drive west of Bangkok, probably slightly longer by train. It is most famous as being the home of the Bridge over the River Kwai. This was of course made famous by the film of the same name. There are many Allied cemeteries dotted around the town and outside, also some Chinese cemeteries.

Me on the Bridge over the River Kwai, Kanchanaburi

Allied Cemetary, Kanchanaburi

You can still ride on a train over the bridge and along a part of the old “Death Railway”, so called because so many people died constructing it. The area is also outstandingly beautiful and a gateway to the Sai Yok national park.

The Death Railway

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Friday, 3 December 2010

Angkor - Words can't describe it

But I’ll give it a go anyway. If you’re into temples, ruins, ancient civilisations and cultures or any combination of the above, Angkor is a must see.

Parallels have been drawn with Ancient Egypt and the Incan and Mayan civilisations of Central/South America. And sure there are some similarities in terms of the scale of the empires, their architectural beauty and significant achievements made. But Angkor is certainly nothing like I’ve seen or experienced anywhere else.

It has an aura, it’s a special almost mystical place. A new wonder lurks around every corner, so many times you’ll feel the hairs on the back of your neck rise.

Make sure you take a few spare memory cards with you, if you’re a keen photographer you’ll take hundreds of pictures, it becomes an automatic reaction!

The Angkor historical park is located on the edge of the town of Siem Reap. I travelled here from Bangkok in the relative luxury of a Bangkok Airways flight (they operate a monopoly on the direct Bangkok – Siem Reap route so there are no cheap deals to be had). The alternative however is a particularly uncomfortable bus ride to the border crossing of Poi Pet. The hassle of the cross border bureaucracy and then transferring to a bus on the Cambodian side and carrying on the bumpy journey.

I stayed at the plush yet almost deserted Khmera Angkor Hotel on the main road from the airport into town. Breakfast was an awkward experience, there was only one other party in the hotel, I had about 6 waitresses hovering around me waiting for something to do. Never have I felt so under pressure to finish my breakfast! I even asked for some extra butter that I didn’t really want just to give someone something to do!

My guide and driver had dropped me at the hotel the night before, and true to their word they picked me up at 9am sharp the next day to begin the grand tour.

We drove to the park entrance to hand over the entrance fee and straight off to the main attraction, Angkor Wat itself. Awe-inspiring, majestic…you can apply any superlative you like and it won’t do Angkor Wat justice, you just have to see it. You approach along a long walkway, elevated over the surrounding moat into the temple itself. I was lucky to visit on a rare quiet day and was afforded many clear photo opportunities. We had a walk around the galleries on the ground level, which house the incredibly detailed bas reliefs (stone carvings in the temple walls) while my guide explained what they represented. Then he left me to attempt the difficult climb to the next level up. The stairs are so steep and narrow it makes it very hard to climb (designed that way on purpose of course!), and the searing heat doesn’t help! The views from the top are incredible and well worth the effort. The descent is rather more awkward as you’re always aware of the chance you might slip and fall down. There are handrails available to try and prevent this.

After the descent we had a walk around on the grass at the rear of the temple and I took lots of shots here. By this point a couple of hours had already passed and I suddenly felt my legs buckle. I hadn’t stopped in 2 hours or drank any water and the heat catches up with you before you know it. Always carry a drink with you, and drink it! You’ll need it.

My guide then read out the schedule for the rest of the day, which to my surprise didn’t include Ta Phrom. I had done some research beforehand and identified this as the one temple I couldn’t miss. It is famous because it was used in filming for one of the Tomb Raider films. I found it to be the most enigmatic of all the temples, because it has been left in the ruined state in which it was found, whereas many temples have now been extensively restored. So another temple was dropped from the schedule to make room for Ta Phrom and off we went.

Once you have gone through the main entrance gate your eyes are immediately drawn to the giant trees that have grown on the roofs of various temple buildings and walls. Many famous photos can be found of these. I felt like a kid in a candy store as I made my way through the various doors and passageways, squeezing through partially collapsed doorways and over piles of rubble. If you can only visit other temples (Angkor Wat is a given) then make it Ta Phrom.

We then took the drive “out of town” to Banteay Srei. In terms of size this is relatively minor, but it is famous because it is the best naturally preserved temple. The details of the carvings are impressive. If you have the time, visit here. If you don’t it can be easily left out.

We then took lunch, the best lunch of my stay, at a family home along the road back to Angkor. This was all tied in with the tour, but I always like to have some kind of contact with the locals when I visit another country, this was ideal for me!

Next on the list was the walled “city” of Angkor Thom. We entered through the famed south gate, after stopping off for photos on the bridge that crosses over the moat. Statues that line either side of this bridge depict the Churning of the Sea of Milk, Google will explain that better than I can but essentially it’s a part of Hindu mythology.

First stop in Angkor Thom is usually the impressive Bayon temple. This is most famous for the gently smiling faces, it is believed they are of King Jayavarman VII. Many believe they represent Buddha himself, many people at the time believed they were one in the same. There is certainly a likeness between the two!

There are many great photo opportunities here that any photographer can enjoy.

By this time we were hurtling towards sunset and I was whisked off to my final stop on the grand tour, Phnom Bakeng. This is a temple on top of a hill which is most famous for its sunset views and the view back down to Angkor Wat. This is the spot that most package tours pick for sunset views and so does get crowded, there are alternatives but I think this is the best place.

I wish I had had more time here but could only squeeze a couple of days in. Even in that short time I visited one of the most memorable and inspiring places on earth and can’t wait to go again.

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The Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew

I had visited the Grand Palace twice before and decided that I needed to go again. My first visit was during my first of many trips to Thailand. I was still in the state of shock that many people experience on their first visit somewhere “exotic”. I was dazzled by the beauty of the place but wasn’t really taking anything in and certainly couldn’t remember any of the detail and history about the place.

On my second visit I was taking my parent’s on a whistle stop tour of the city whilst I was living there. We kind of rushed around in a couple of hours and again I had no time to really absorb the atmosphere of the whole site.

I was determined that this time I would spend at least half a day and really get to know and understand the Grand Palace. I would recommend anybody who’s visiting Bangkok visits the Grand Palace/Wat Phra Kaew, even if only for short time. It is spectacular and probably Thailand’s most sacred site. Wat Phra Kaew also contains Thailand’s most important Buddha image, the Emerald Buddha.

If you have longer to spend here, then half a day can easily be passed here. Try and arrive early to beat the crowds and the heat. It does get very busy here (as you’d expect of such a major attraction) and somewhat difficult to get clear photos.

Basically after you’ve entered the grounds and ignored all the touts waiting outside, you go to the ticket office and enter Wat Phra Kaew. The grounds contain many stunning buildings each with their own significance that I won’t even attempt to explain here! My favourite is the golden Chedi which contains a part one of Buddha’s bones. You can get some fantastic photos of this when the sunlight catches it. The same goes for the other temple buildings.

The main doorway through from Wat Phra Kaew into the Grand Palace grounds is a bit hidden in a far corner. Basically when you enter Wat Phra Kaew you take a left and do a circuit around the grounds, then just before you come back to your starting point there’s a doorway on your left.

The Grand Palace grounds are slightly more spacious with manicured trees and plants and ceremonial guards. The main building is Chakri Mahaprasad Hall, which is European in appearance with a Thai style roof. Again it can be difficult to get clear photos here so get there as early as you can to take photos and then take your time to wander the grounds and soak it all up. There are a couple of slightly overpriced cafes dotted around, but I’d recommend bringing your own water. There are also plenty of places you can go for some shade.

One of which are the galleries all along the walls of Wat Phra Kaew which depict the Ramayana.

One other thing not to be missed is the fantastically detailed scale model of Angkor Wat, in the grounds of Wat Phra Kaew.

Whether you’re a photographer or not, a temple lover or not, you’ll love this place!

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