Chiang Mai: Week 140

The Iron Bridge under seige during Yee Peng: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Bangkok was in the midst of a revolution; Chiang Mai was in the midst of war. Rockets blew divots out of the banks of the Ping River while the trees were pocked marked with self-immolating lanterns.

Across the chaos spanned the Iron Bridge. The local teenagers who overran it were clumped along the rails like caviar, tossing fireworks into the river and at each other. The most popular firework was handmade and tied with a red plastic cord to the end of thin reed.  Notoriously inconsistent, sometimes they exploded as soon as they were lit while other times they shot across the sky.

Local teenagers gathering on the Iron Bridge during Yee Peng: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Loi Krathong is a Buddhist holiday the falls on a full moon between the October and Novemeber. Loi means to float while Krathong refers to the decorative float that is usually made from biodegradable materials like banana leaves.  During Loi Krathong, thousands of candlelit floats are released into the Ping River and the canal around the old city walls. While it is a national holiday, only in the north has it become synonymous with silly amounts of fireworks and the local Lanna tradition of Yee Peng: the lantern festival.

A bar on the the banks of the Ping River where people launched their krathongs: Chiang Mai, Thailand

While I waited at the foot of the Iron Bridge to send off my krathong, I pulled a piece of paper out of my pocket. It was the Loi Krathong song translated into English:

November full moon shines

Loi Krathong Loi Krathong

And the water’s high in local river and the klong

Loi Loi Krathong Loi Loi Krathong

Before I could finish I was distracted by a woman’s scream. She was ten feet in front of us and her hands were covering the side of her face. “She was hit,” my sister observed. “A firework right to the cheek and it’s the one night I didn’t bring my med kit.”

The small handmande fireworks that are so popular during Yee Peng: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Chiang Mai was established in 1296. Today it’s one of the most culturally important cities in Northern Thailand and also one of the most popular cities on the tourist trail. People who knew it ‘way back when’ might mourn the modernization and the volume of tourists, but neither of those detract from the city. It’s not hard to dig behind the tourist façade; all you need is a moped and time to kill.

Krathong that washed up along the banks of the Ping River: Chiang Mai, Thailand

One afternoon my sister and I were wandering around when we passed the Chiang Mai Technical College. The entire school was out in the courtyard inflating giant handmade lanterns. An electric fan first puffed up the lantern and after a few minutes one of the kids thrust a flaming torch inside. Right before the lantern was released, fireworks were attached and their long fuse lit.

Students inflating their handmade lantern at the Chiang Mai Technical College during Yee Peng: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Most of the lanterns rose high over the city, some collapsed, a few burst into crackling flames over the crowd- the announcer seemed to enjoy the failures the most.

Even without the festival, there was so much to do in Chiang Mai. Tuesday night my sister and I went to the Kalare Boxing Stadium which was only a stadium by name. In reality it was a large outdoor canopy behind the Night Bazaar.

A Muay Thai Fight at the Kalare Boxing Stadium: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Before each match, the Muay Thai boxers performed a traditional ceremony. They began by visiting all four corners of the ring to claim their territory. This is called the Wai Khru. Afterwards is the Ram Muay, a dance which shows respect for the person they are fighting as well as for their teachers.

After watching the dance off, I picked a winner and waved 200 baht at the wandering bookie. He had heavy, puffy eyelids and a dingy pink shirt. The overall impression he gave was that of a contentedly drunk person.

A slow tempo began and steadily intensified until it suddenly crashed, ending the round. I won my first bet, but lost the following three. I couldn’t help but feel that my win had been a carefully calculated strategy. Bookies, I came to realize, only took bets that worked in their favor.

An outdoor pavillion along the Ping River: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Because Loi Krathong and Yee Peng bring so many people to the city, the festival lasts about a week and for 2013 it ended on Monday with the Grand Krathong Procession. It was the last of the five scheduled parades and the only one to get rained out.

Loy Krathong Grand Procession: Chiang Mai, Thailand

The parade was filled with perfectly coiffed hair and youthful faces. One particularly large group sponsored by AirAsia was just a procession of beautifully dressed couples, each followed by a shirtless and shoeless boy holding a canopy over their heads. A young guy with a loose pony tail walked alongside the procession and dabbed the sweat off the ladies’ brows. He didn’t bother with the awkwardly pubescent boy-servants.

Loy Krathong Grand Procession: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Like many of the events, they proved to be so popular that it was difficult to control the crowds. A ceremony at Wat Phan Tao was completely overrun with over-zealous amateur photographers. On the other hand, the temple next door was completely empty.

Wat Phan Tao - Yee Peng Ceremony: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Wat Chedi Luang was originally completed in the mid-15th century and is such a sacred place that no visitor is allowed up it. Most of the monks aren’t allowed either, however during Yi Peng it kind of became target practice for novice monks with itchy fingers.

Wat Chedi Luang - young monks during Yee Peng: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Irreverent, rambunctious, rollicking; the novice monks were an incongruous mixture of future religious leaders and uninhibited children all in one. They threw firecrackers across the courtyard and (accidentally) onto unsuspecting pedestrians. Their lanterns floated onto temple roofs and burst into eco-conscious recycled-paper fireballs.

In the grand scheme of things, it makes more sense if you view the monastery as a means for education. Earlier that week Nan and I had visited Wat Chedi Luang for the Monk Chat program. It was an outdoor courtyard where monks could practice their English with tourists.

Wat Chedi Luang - young monks during Yee Peng: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Jade, a young monk around twenty years old, spoke very quietly and paused often to choose the right word. The only time he seemed confused was when my sister told him how much a year’s worth of tuition at Harvard cost. Jade quickly punched some numbers into his phone and handed it over to us. “2,000,000 baht…” He shook his head, “I could be a doctor with that much money.” His colleague’s degree cost 7,000 baht a year.

While I already knew that boys were sent to the monastery because of poverty, I did not realize that they also had access to university education and were able to leave the monastery. Oddly enough, it reminded me of a popular education-incentivized program in the US: the military.

Wat Chedi Luang - young monks during Yee Peng: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Despite how lucky I felt to have walked through Wat Chedi Luang that night, I don’t want to give the impression that the best events are always off the radar. Sometimes you want as many people as possible- especially for the Yee Peng Sansai Ceremony.

The night sky just before the lanterns were released for the Yee Peng Festival: Chiang Mai, Thailand

The ceremony, which pays homage to the Lord Buddha and his dhamma teaching, is free and takes place on the grounds of the Mae Jo University. There is another called Yeepeng Lanna International that costs USD $100 and is geared only towards tourists.

The ceremony was fairly lengthy and conducted entirely in Thai by a monk with a peaceful voice. When the chanting finished, the call was given to light the lanterns. All of the Dhammachai lanterns were the same; Thai Industrial Standard 808/2552: 90 cm diameter, recycled tissue paper, a few strips of bamboo and a few heat proof threads. The wick was a disk of compressed paper. The lantern felt more fragile that an eggshell when we held it, but it was surprisingly durable.

Tourists holding their lanterns during the Yee Peng Lantern Festival: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Grey smoke slowly filled the interior cavity and smoothed out the wrinkled paper. When the lanterns were buoyant, a canon rang and each one was released at once. They quickly rose and spread out in the sky like jellyfish drifting in an ocean current. I wasn’t the only one who let out a gasp; my sister quietly teared up.

Yi Peng Lantern Festival: Chiang Mai, Thailand

About: Chiang Mai

About: Yee Peng Lanna International

About: Monk Chat Programs

About: Thai Festivals

How to get to the Kalare Boxing Staduim: Cnr Thapae Road & Changklan- behind the Night Bazaar in the direction of the Ping River

Yi Peng Iron Bridge Taxi

Bangkok & Sukhothai: Week 139

View of Wat Arun from the Chao Phraya: Bangkok, Thailand

“Was that dock eight?” I asked the woman standing at the bow of the ferry. She was holding a small square microphone that perfectly distorted every announcement she made. The boat had only stopped for less than a minute before veering back into the mocha waters of the Chao Phraya, the aorta of Bangkok.

“Where did you want to go?” she replied.

“Wat Arun.”

“AH! This is why I tell people to line up at the back! I always tell people! You. Have. To. Line. Up.” She threw the microphone down in disgust; finally I could understand what she was saying. “You have to be very fast!”

My sister and I got off at the next stop.  As the hull drew alongside the dock, the intercom was a flurry of urgently scrambled reminders. People jumped on, people jumped off; the transaction was over in twenty seconds.

Grand Palace: Bangkok, Thailand

Nan and I were left standing on the Grand Palace pier. From the concrete pontoon, wooden planks led into a small building with low ceilings. For some reason the planks continued throughout the building so that everyone walked a foot and a half above the floor. A cat was curled up in the middle of the walkway, just under the lowest part of the ceiling.

Just outside the dock the vendors had set up shop almost on top of each other. In the middle of the market were the makeshift restaurants. Their tables were low and covered with sticky plastic tablecloths and jars of spicy sauces.

Grand Palace: Bangkok, Thailand

The most beautiful wats in Bangkok are scattered along the river like glass marbles.

Grand Palace: Bangkok, Thailand

Grand Palace: Bangkok, Thailand

Mural inside the Grand Palace: Bangkok, Thailand

Grand Palace: Bangkok, Thailand

The Temple of the Emerald Buddha in particular is completely covered in small glass tiles. From a distance the walls shimmer like sunlight on water, up close the mirrored pieces have small dark splotches like liver spots.

A woman in traditional costume outside Wat Arun: Bangkok, Thailand

Across the Chao Phraya is Wat Arun, also known as the Temple of Dawn. The central tower, or prang, is decorated with ceramic tiles. Unlike glass, the ceramic pieces are cut from special bowls so that they have a delicate curve. The main prang is about 250 feet tall and is reached by steps so steep, it feels like you are climbing a ladder.

The gold-leaf-covered hand at Wat Si Chum: Sukhothai, Thailand

Sukhothai is several hours north of Bangkok and well known for its expansive temple complex. During better times, the historic center was enclosed within three concentric walls. Nowadays, you can move about freely with a moped and a handful of tickets.

The most famous Buddha image (or at least the most recommended) is Wat Si Chum. Built in the 13th century, this seated figure is slowly turning gold. As a way to gain merit, worshippers in Thailand purchase small ½ inch pieces of gold leaf to transfer onto statues of Buddha. Putting gold on the back of the Buddha refers to doing a good deed without seeking attention.

A seated Buddha image at Wat Saphan Hin: Sukhothai, Thailand

Just outside the western end of the Sukhothai Historical Park is a quiet uphill road lined with the ruins of smaller wats. At the crest of the hill is Wat Saphan Hin, a brick ruin with a large standing Buddha and a view of the whole complex.

A small figurine at the foot of Wat Saphan Hin: Sukhothai, Thailand

By the time Nan and I had hiked up the slate steps, dusk was approaching and we were the only visitors. Even out in the middle of the woods, people had thought to bring a few pieces of gold leaf or a glittery figurine in prayer. It seemed a strange thing to take on a hike (water bottle- check, trail mix- check, gold leaf- check), but I guess if your afterlife is on the line nothing is out of question.

About: Bangkok (where even the skyscrapers look like temples)

A tower with a temple-like facade in Bangkok, Thailand

About: the Grand Palace

About: Sukhothai

Macau: Week 138, Part 2

Two women walking outside the entrance of the Grand Lisboa, Macau

“There is no night life here,” Mikayla said with a frown.

I was having a hard time believing her; the tour guide in my hand was open to the entertainment section. “But it says that Macau’s nightlife is famous for its variety, frantic pace, and constant change,” I quickly pointed out. “What about Avenida Sun Yat-Sen? Have you been there?”

Mikayla shot me a deadpan look. “They’re lying.”

For the last eight years she’d been alternating between visiting and living in Macau. If anyone was familiar with the city, it would be her. So whether or not I was ready to accept it, Mikayla was right- Las Vegas’ biggest competition doesn’t let its hair down.

Grand Lisboa, Macau

If Hong Kong is the life of the party, then Macau would be the parents who are out of town. Of course there are the luxurious hotels, restaurants, cocktail bars, and couture shops; but the focus remains undeniably and explicitly on gambling. And you know what? You can’t gamble if you’re dancing.

At the Venetian Macau, the casino floor is inside a large hall that’s enclosed behind a partition. It has the visual appeal of a heavily guarded convention and only the most determined of gamblers would want to be there (unlike the packs of roving ‘bros’ in Vegas that wear untucked dress shirts and keep one eye on their cards and the other on the women).

Obviously the casinos know their market though; according to Bloomberg, as of October 2013, gambling revenue in Macau jumped to $4.57 billion USD.

A small altar outside a shop in Senado Square, Macau

However, unlike Las Vegas, Macau is a former Portuguese colony rich in heritage and UNESCO listed. Senado Square, the historic heart of city, is just one of many places where the curious mixture of Chinese and Portuguese culture is apparent. The beautiful black and white stone tiles (that also famously pattern the beaches of Rio) are fringed with knee-high altars for good luck and prosperity.

A man performs a choreographed piece of Chinese opera inside Mount Fortress, Macau

Overlooking Senado Square, Mount Fortress combines the rugged charm of a European fortress with the other-worldly twang of Chinese opera.

A building inside Old Taipa Village, Macau

Across the harbor, pastel green colonial buildings are pasted with red and gold charms.

***

For outwardly being less sinful than Las Vegas (based only on the fact that Macau doesn’t have a night club which encourages women to compete for breast implants), there are a lot more religious shrines. Perhaps Vegas doesn’t feel the need to atone for much, but take a stroll in any direction in Macau and you will run into one shrine after another.

Visitors lighting incense inside the frint gate of A-Ma Temple, Macau

The moment you step inside the famous A-Ma temple, a dense cloud of incense will smack you in the face. Move too slowly and the burning hot ash from a 6ft joss stick will blow onto your shoulder. Move too quickly and you will miss the details: the quiet rituals, the bored gaze of the bald man behind the incense stall, the men in suits finalizing their business deals under a spray of pale gray ash.

Master planned community of the north shore of Taipa Island, Macau

About ten years ago, while working at McDonald’s, I was in the kitchen washing the breakfast cooking equipment. There were several steps, all of which I did too thoroughly, but the last one in particular was a pale pink disinfectant bath. The moment I caught a whiff of it, I knew it smelled like something familiar. I just couldn’t place it right away.

Then it hit me- it was the same scent as the well water of my childhood home in Florida. Not that I claim to be a water connoisseur, but it had a very specific scent because it was so hard and had so many minerals. All the white laundry slowly turned cream and my hair strawberry blond.

Inside Pak Tai Temple: Old Taipa Village, Macau

That’s kind of how I feel about Chinese incense now. As soon as I smell it, it reminds me of a small dark temple with incense coils hanging from the ceiling. The air is heavy, but cleansed, and behind the screen of smoke there glitters gold toned urns and paper charms.

Sculpture from the Sacred Art Museum at St Dominic's Church, Macau

St Dominic’s Church, in Senado Square, is one of the most famous examples of 17th century Baroque architecture in Macau. While it lacks the excitement of dodging hot ash and it feels much more touristy than the A-Ma Temple, it makes up for it with religious sculpture. In the Sacred Art Museum above the church is a box of oddly severed and disjointed body parts.

Booth at the Festival da Lusofonia, Macau

Macau was a Portuguese colony from the mid-16th century right up until 1999, which made it the last remaining European colony in Asia. Considering the longevity of the occupation, it’s interesting to note that only about 2% of the population is Portuguese. Despite that small percentage, Mikayla and I stumbled across the Lusofonia Festival on my first night.

It was a celebration of Portuguese-speaking culture from across the globe- from Brazil to East Timor to Sao Tome & Principe. Each country had its own booth and very different ways of introducing its culture. Brazil had creepy black mannequins and cachaça; another country had a sandy pond filled with drowning turtles (Mikayla advised the owner to put some rocks in the pool so the turtles could rest).

Strolling down the Avenida da Praia, on my left were the candy-colored Taipa Houses Museum and on my right, in the distance, was the Venetian Hotel. A high-stake future, a colonial past, one endearingly eclectic mix; I was really enjoying Macau.

­About: Macau

How to get to Senado Square: Macau Island, Buses: 2, 3, 3A, 3X, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8A, 10, 10A, 11, 17, 18, 18A, 19, 21A, 26A, 33

How to get to A-Ma Temple: Macau Island, Buses: 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 10A, 11, 18, 21A, 26, 28B, MT4

How to get to the Taipa Houses Museum: Avenida da Praia, Old Taipa Village -Taipa Island. Buses: 11, 15, 22, 28A, 30, 33, 34

Hong Kong: Week 138, Part 1

View of Hong Kong from the Peak Tower

From the Peak Tower, the skyscrapers along Victoria Harbour fringe the coast like burrs stuck on the hem of a long skirt. While the greatest concentration of people live along the coast, the steep slopes also hold their fair share of homes. SoHo, the foodie neighborhood, has the longest outdoor escalator in the world. From 6am it takes passengers down into the heart of the city and changes direction at 10am to carry people back uphill to the Mid-Levels neighborhood.

Dai pai dong food stall in SoHo, Hong Kong

My second night in Hong Kong I met a Couchsurfer for dinner at a dai pai dong- a street stall in a wide alley. When we arrived the low plastic tables were full and the stainless steel kitchen cart was overwhelmed with equipment and cooks rushing around each other.

We shared a circular table with a family of three; as I ate the little boy to my right practiced using scissors on his crab legs. His grasp was strong enough to cut through the exoskeleton, but not enough to prevent the small, hairy legs from shooting into my lap.

Crosswalk intersection on Hong Kong Island

In Orlando, Florida you know when you are within a half hour of Disneyworld. The Mickey Mouse billboards proliferate and traffic signs along the road give you the frequency for Radio Disney. In Hong Kong, the only indication that a magical kingdom exists somewhere in the rolling hills of dry yellow bush is an exit sign on the North Lantau Highway.

Giant Buddha at the Po Lin Monastery on Lantau Island, Hong Kong

The more interesting draw to Lantau Island is the Po Lin Monastery. Unlike Disneyland, the famous Giant Buddha feels like it belongs atop Mount Muk Yue, as if it were a natural extension of the landscape. The enormous bronze sculpture is an amalgamation of 202 individually cast pieces and inside the base is a memorial room where devotees can buy a plaque in honor of their loved ones. Like Disneyland, they can also buy an ice cream on the way out.

At the base of the mountain is the Po Lin Monastery and that in turn was fronted by large incense urns. When people finished praying they lit their incense and placed it in the large sand-filled urns. While new sticks were sown, women in straw hats gleaned the debris. Considering the volume of visitors, it was a never-ending task.

Women cleaning the incense urns at the Po Lin Monastery on Lantau Island, Hong Kong

For such a dense city, the traffic moved relatively quickly. The slowest, but the most enjoyable form of transportation were the trams that traveled along Victoria Harbour.

The narrow tracks ran down the middle of the street and at times the trams felt like they almost brushed against each other as they headed in opposite directions. Two spiral staircases led to a second level, which was the best place for a panoramic view of the street. The windows were open and covered in signs reminding people not to stick their arms outside.

Trams moving through an intersection on Kong Kong Island

Although the trams were covered in shiny new ads for luxury clothing, they had a surprisingly antique feel. Maybe it’s because I’m not used to being able to open the windows on public transport. Like paying for candy with pennies, my parents were the generation that agonized over how much to crack the windows. Nowadays I feel like a spring breeze is something I only experience in between weather-sealed buses and offices.

Another thing that struck me as surprisingly old-fashioned was the scaffolding. Who knew that a city of skyscrapers could be built with the help of bamboo? Every single construction site I saw had thousands upon thousands of bamboo poles tied together in a grid pattern that completely encased the building. Depending on how tall the scaffolding was, periodic sections rose off the wall at diagonal angles. These portions banded the building and made the construction site look a fortress.

Bamboo scaffolding in Hong Kong

My hostel, Yes Inn, was on the 15th floor of the Continental Mansion. The word mansion has absolutely nothing to do with quality, but rather with quantity. By that I mean anything with the name ‘mansion’ will have a lot of businesses and tenants.

Ground level at the Continental Mansion in Hong Kong

The entrance to Yes Inn looked like the back door of a grocery store, the place where merchandise is received. Inside, the hostel continued to look more commercial than residential. The low ceiling was identical to the suspended tiles you find in offices and a water cooler sat across from the white check-in counter.

The sign to the Yes Inn inside the Continental Mansion, Hong Kong

Because of the construction the toilets weren’t working. During my stay I began noticing that many of the skyscrapers were constructed with unusual angles and creases, probably meant for air flow. The Continental Mansion was no exception. The crevasse between the bathroom window and the facing wall was filled with pipes and electrical wires and a metal cage. It might have let in some small amount of fresh air, but in reality it was the kind of view that made you think of depressing futuristic films like Brazil.

The last few loiterers at the Yuen Po Street Bird Garden in Kowloon, Hong Kong

On the other hand, there were also a lot of parks and gardens throughout the city. Across the bay in Kowloon I went for an evening stroll through the Flower Market before ending up at the Yuen Po Street Bird Garden. The stalls were closed for the day, but small wooden cages were still dangling from the trees, some covered in white cloths.

Except for a few groups of loitering guys, the gardens were empty. I don’t know what it is about the sounds of softly chirping birds, but it really tends to attract men. Maybe the same could be said about cities and women. I once read a book where the main character was drawn to cities because she believed they were beacons of progress and civil liberties.

Unfortunately, my reason for visiting Hong Kong was not quite so enlightened. I just wanted to experience the lights, the noise, the cosmopolitan scrum. I soon realized it’s the kind of place you leave with a hangover and only two regrets: wishing for more time and wishing you hadn’t caught the very early and very choppy ferry to Macau.

About: Hong Kong

About: Hong Kong Tramways

How to get to the Giant Buddha & Po Lin Monastery: from Central Pier 6 take the ferry to Mui Wo, Lantau Island. Then catch bus 2 to Ngong Ping. Alternatively you can take catch the MTR to Tung Chung Station exit B and then bus 23 to Ngong Ping.

How to get to the Yuen Po Street Bird Garden: From the MTR Prince Edward Station exit B1, walk east. The gardens will be on the left hand side.

Buddha’s Birthday: Week 9

Immediately above us glowed a collapsed rainbow. It hit the ground with such a force that long polychromatic strands were strewn across the city. Jogyesa Temple had been protected from the crush due to a fortuitously placed tree growing in the middle of the courtyard. The gigantic 500-year-old white pine punctured the belly of the beast and splattered bright orbs of light out into the night sky. Down below workers cleared up the debris while the remaining crowd of bystanders dispersed into the soft rain. As I too turned to leave, I saw men rising on a hydraulic lift. They were examining the parts of the rainbow that had grown dark. I can’t say what they thought about this sudden turn of events, but I hoped it didn’t signal the end of such a beautiful sight.

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