Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Sanctuary of Truth

When I first heard about this tourist attraction in Pattaya I was, I must admit, a little sceptical... It sounded like yet another cheesy, tacky, gimicky site that I could well afford to miss. However, being the thorough and inquisitive traveller/writer that I am I finally acquiesced and added it to Pattaya “to-do” list. And well, let me tell you, I was COMPLETELY wrong, this actually turned out to be the highlight of my trip!
The Sanctuary of Truth (also called Wang Boran and Prasat Mai) is a 105m-high wooden building of contemporary fantastic religious art that resembles a temple. It’s dramatically located on a rocky beachfront strip of land with thunderous waves lapping at its heels. When you arrive to the site you first take a somewhat uncomfortable and mortifying buggy ride from the main gate/ticket booth to the site itself; and rightly so, for who would want to walk a pleasant 150 metres through wooden parkland tsk tsk tsk! From here, at the top of the cliff, one can look down and get their first glimpse of the sanctuary.... Visible peaking about the tree line are some turrets and roofing, like the tip of an iceberg bobbing above the water. Many an involuntary gasp is uttered here, so the guide tells me, as the site truly is something otherworldly. One of those moments when the eyes do battle with the senses for control of the mind: what the hell is this?!
Construction begun back in 1981 and is scheduled to be completed in 2025. It has been initiated and sponsored by Lek Viriyaphant [1914-2000], an eccentric Thai millionaire and patron of culture who is also responsible for construction of the Ancient City and Erawan Museum. The sanctuary is in the style of ancient Khmer architecture like Angkor Wat in Siem Reap and is entirely covered in hand-carved wooden sculptures. It has four gopura (monumental halls) respectively representing images from the Buddhist and Hindu religion and mythologies of Cambodia, China, India and Thailand. The whole structure covers the area of more than two rai (just under 1 acre). It is being purposely constructed to withstand the wind and sunshine on the seashore at Rachvate Cape, Pattaya. I could have gleaned more nuggets of information from our enthusiastic guide who rattled through her prepared speech with military efficiency, but in truth I was so gobsmacked by the place that I paid scant attention.
According to the official website, the sanctuary’s purpose is to use art and culture as "a reflection of the Ancient Vision of Earth, Ancient Knowledge, and Eastern Philosophy. Within this complex, visitors will understand Ancient Life, Human Responsibility, Basic Thought, Cycle of living, Life Relationship with Universe and Common Goal of Life toward Utopia". Well, I don’t know about all the cosmic love, but it sure is a damn fine sight and worth a visit. For myself, I was quite blown away by the intricacy and workmanship that continues to go into the massive structure. Every section is truly unique and distinct and it’s captivating to see how amazing shapes can be carded out of wood and fastened together without using a single nail! When touring everyone must still wear a hardhat as worker bees are scrambling all over the place, underfoot and overhead, adding touches here and there. You can also inspect some of the carvers hard at work out back in the “preparation” shed.
Getting there: From the Siam Bayshore Resort & Spa or Siam Bayview Hotel you can easily get a car or moto taxi to take you there, about a 10 minute ride from the centre of town. The entrance fee is Bht 500 per person, which includes a horse and cart ride to/from the site, tour guide and dolphin (?) show.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Chinese New Year

This Chinese New Year I decided to give in to nostalgia for my former home (Beijing) and head to Bangkok’s famed Chinatown district for a little fun and frivolity. For those of you not familiar, Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, is the most important of the traditional Chinese holidays. It is commonly called "Lunar New Year" because it is based on the lunisolar Chinese calendar. The festival traditionally begins on the first day of the first month in the Chinese calendar and ends on the 15th; this day is called Lantern Festival. In many areas the highlight of the lantern festival is the dragon dance.
Unlike the Western linear calendar, the Chinese calendar features a cyclical dating method that repeats every 60 years. The calendar is based on two cycles that interact with each other — the Chinese zodiac, which is divided into 12 parts, and the five elements. The five elements are metal, water, wood, fire and earth. Each year of the Chinese Zodiac is represented by a different animal: the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. The five elements are assigned to the 12 animals (years), giving different characteristics to each animal (year). Assigning each of the five elements to the 12 years creates 60 different combinations, which in turn result in a 60-year cycle. This year is a metal tiger year and supposedly it will be good for said people’s finances. Next year it’s the rabbits turn to shine.
Chinese New Year is the longest and most important festivity in the Chinese Lunar Calendar. Within China, regional customs and traditions concerning the celebration vary widely. People will pour out their money to buy presents, decorations, firecrackers, food and clothing. It is also tradition for every family to thoroughly clean their house to sweep away any ill-fortune in hopes of bringing forth good luck in the coming year. Windows and doors are decorated with red paper-cuts and couplets with popular themes of “happiness”, “wealth” and “longevity”. On the Eve of Chinese New Year, supper is a feast with families that ends with firecrackers. Early the next morning, children will greet their parents by wishing them a healthy and happy new year, and receive money in red paper envelopes, called hong bao (or ang pao in Thai).
The festival is embraced by countries and territories worldwide with significant Han Chinese populations, such as Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, Taiwan, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand. Down here it’s estimated that just over seven million people, or about 15% of the Thai population, are of Chinese ethnicity. Slightly more than half of the ethnic Chinese population in Thailand trace their ancestry to the Chaozhou prefecture in northern Guangdong. A further minority trace their ancestry to Hakka and Hainanese immigrants. All in all though, those Thai-Chinese are a feisty bunch who hold firm to their Chinese roots and celebrate the New Year with gusto.
In 2010, Chinese New Year happened to fall on the same day as Valentines – February 14; this meant double the trouble for Bangkok. By the time my friends and I reached Chinatown at midday the area was already awash with hundreds of crazed red fanatics. We snaked our way through the crowd and then proceeded to walk leisurely down Yaowarat Road taking in the sights and smells. We saw Peking ducks roasting on an open fire, a dog wearing a traditional qipao dress, men selling giant inflatable cartoon characters, an array of Thai snacks like delicious coconut ice cream and even H.R.H Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, come to pay her respects at temple. Although not as loud and boisterous as festivities in Mainland China, the carnival atmosphere, exuberant crowds and infectious happiness made the outing more than worthwhile. My only gripe would be the lack of authentic Chinese street food on offer, where were the dumplings, pancakes, sweet cakes and candied apples... I would also have liked to see a lively dragon dance; although I missed it in Chinatown, I was fortunate to catch a parade at the Siam City Hotel.
Getting there: From the Siam City Hotel take the BTS from Phayathai station six stops (towards Ou Nut) to station Asok, from there you follow the signs to the MRT. Hop on and go six stops to the end, Hua Lamphong station. From here you want to take exit 1 and basically follow the crowds to Chinatown, about 10 minutes walk away...

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Chatuchak Market

This past Sunday I took it upon myself to head north to Chatuchak Market (Jatujuak or JJs as the locals call it) and check out some plants. That’s right folks, it may surprise some (I’m not generally thought of as a “green thumb”) to hear this, but it’s true. And so, Sunday afternoon I pack my bag – water, sunscreen, hat, sunglasses, snack – and hit the road!
Trying to explain Chatuchak is not an easy task as this market staunchly defies description as it boggles the mind. When you arrive via the Skytrain you get a good bird’s eye view of just how large it is: some 70 rai (27 acres), which is divided up into 27 sections, housing 15,000 shops [which have being in operation for over 20 years].
The market is skilfully (but not “strictly”) divided up into the following sections:
·         Section 1: amulets, books, collectibles, food shops, café,
·         Section 2 to 4: collectibles, home décor, paintings, terra cotta,
·         Section 5 to 6 clothes, adornments, miscellaneous products,
·         Section 7 to 9: antiques, furniture, ceramics, handicrafts,
·         Section 10 to 24: clothes, consumer products, adornments, household appliances, pets,
·         Section 17 to 19: ceramics, fresh and dry food,
·         Section 22 to 26: antiques, furniture, handicrafts and
·         Section 27: books, food and dessert shops, collectibles.
The only downfall to Chatuchak is that it can get extremely hot – the aisles are very narrow and dark, it is outdoors (so no fan or AC), and there are tons of people. Meaning: this is not exactly leisurely shopping in parts, you will have to use your pointy elbows and fight your way through at times. It’s not uncommon to see delirious tourist aimlessly wandering and near fainting as they fervently clutch their abundant shopping bags and staging around searching for that ever elusive “perfect” souvenir. Whilst the undercover parts can be a tight squeeze, there are plenty of open-air sections in-between that offer a cool respite and a chance to re-charge the batteries.
At the start, the market can feel like a total maze, and it is very easy to get frustrated; especially when you cannot navigate through the crap (faux Hello Kitty earmuffs anyone!) to find what you really desire and/or need. At this point, stop, take a fresh OJ break in the shade at one of the ubiquitous urban cafes and don’t succumb to any kind of Blair Witch fantasy and believe you’re frantically lost in the woods. Trust me, once you’ve figured out the map and gotten acclimated to your surroundings, a shopper’s paradise will open up before your eyes! In truth, getting lost is actually my favourite part of Chatuchak, I’ve stumbled across some of my best and most interesting finds that way, I’ll list a few here: squeaky plastic chickens, Mr T t-shirts, solid gold back-scratchers, Reebok Pumps, x-rated fridge magnets, home-made Barbie outfits, mini- pomeranian puppies, hemp underwear, recycled coca-cola can handbags and Pac-Man Atari games.
As you’re probably starting to realise, Chatuchak is a jack-of-all-trades kinda place, in one corner you have plants and books, in another all manner of pets and their associated paraphernalia, all this neighbouring “trendy” fashion boutiques staffed by up-and-coming local designers and juxtaposed to exquisite hand-made tea sets and a guy selling nothing but novelty lighters. Anything and everything is possible at Chuatuchak. Come armed with an open mind, a big bag, plenty of patience, lots of water, great bargaining skills and you’ll have a fantastic time.
The market is officially open 6am to 6pm on Wednesday/Thursday for plants and flowers, wholesale on Friday and Saturday/Sunday is “miscellaneous”. My advice is go early in the morning or late in the afternoon as the heat and crowds [as many as 20,000 people!] can be quite unbearable. One could easily spend half a day here; I’m usually done after 1.5hrs of caffeine-infused wandering. For more information go to: www.chatuchak.org.
Oh, btw, I did get my plant, a lovely bonsai whom I now call Mr Miyagi (or Mr M) and who sits proudly on my desk at work. Mission accomplished. Nest time a beanbag... I reckon Chatuchak is up to the challenge!!!
Getting there: From the Siam City Hotel take the Skytrain from Phayathai station five stops to the last station, Mo Chit. From there you can easily follow the crowds down the road 200m to the market. You really cannot miss it. Alternatively, you can get there by taxi or MRT, station Chatuchuk Park

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Open Air Cinema

Last night I went along to the Goethe-Institut to attend a screening of the film Whisky With Vodka, as part of the centre’s on-going Open Air Film festival (finishing March 3). The festival, which runs annually from December to March, has become a highlight for Bangkok film enthusiasts not only for its unique setting amidst the tranquil garden surroundings of the institute, but also for its selection of the best contemporary German language films [with English subtitles] around. The affair is nothing fancy, just a large screen, plastic outdoor chairs and a small makeshift kiosk selling drinks like beer, soda and water [there is also a restaurant on site where you can grab dinner beforehand and get large pints of take-away German beer to watching during the screening]. The festival is really a treat and a great way to spend an evening making the most of Bangkok’s short-lived “cool” season.
In Whisky With Vodka, Andreas Dresen, one of Germany’s better known directors, attempts a comedic satire on film-making; tracing the conflicts and jealousies which take place on the set of a period situation comedy. In a nutshell: popular, older, heavy-drinking actor Otto is forced to accept a double, with the threat that he’ll take over the part if Otto doesn’t toe the line. Otto once had an affair with his co-star Bettina, now married to hypocritical director Telleck. This gives rise to further complications. Whisky With Vodka presents romantic entanglements on- and off-screen, musings on the quality of acting and thespian insecurity, reflections on old age and the approach of death. Personally I really enjoyed the film, the acting was very good and there were some very sly, witty moments; thanks to them I was able to overlook some of the more trite, clichéd aspects of actors and their numerous foibles.
If you plan to go along take my advice and bring plenty of bug spray as the mosquitoes are numerous and ravenous! The last four screenings of the year are: Storm on Feb. 10, Die Herbstzeitlosen on Feb. 17, The Friend on Feb. 24 and Gibellina – II Terremoto on Mar. 3. For full details, go to: http://www.goethe.de/ins/th/ban/ver/en5264486v.htm.
Getting there: From the Siam City Hotel take the BTS from Phayathai station six stops (towards Mo Chit) to station Asok, from there you follow the signs to the MRT. Hop on and go two stops (towards Hua Lamphong) to station Lumphini. From here you want to take exit 2. Walk up Sathorn Tai Rd 200m and take the first small street, Sathorn Soi 2, on your left-hand side. Walk straight for about 500m and then take the even smaller Goethe Soi, on your left again, with the institute appearing only 150m up on the left.