A “must do” half day trip from Chiang Mai’s old city is to go up Mount (Doi) Suthep and see the temple and palace, and perhaps some of the national park, that lies up the mountain. I kept putting off this trip waiting for the “perfect moment” and then ended up going on nearly my last day in town! I did end up having a lovely day, especially touring the very impressive gardens at the palace.
Since I’m in Thailand for more than 30 days, I had to take a trip to the Burmese border to get a new tourist stamp. It’s very easy to do this from Chiang Mai, and I signed up with a pre-arranged tour for transportation, lunch, hand-holding during the border crossing, and visits to a couple of sights along the way.
I visited the extremely popular Wat Rong Khun, or White Temple, which is an artistic endeavor in Chiang Rai that was undertaken about 15 years ago and is still a work in progress. Absolutely gorgeous from afar, the temple is actually pretty disturbing up close. There’s hellish imagery juxtaposed with Buddhist figures, and in the interior of the temple – where photos are not allowed – there are murals of pop icons and terrorist attacks, including the burning Twin Towers. I was completely unprepared for this; I had thought I’d be visiting just another wat and had no idea that the White Temple was actually a modern building making some kind of statement. To be honest, I found it a bit distasteful.
The tour also stopped at the Golden Triangle, which is a section of the Mekong River that touches Thailand, Burma, and Laos. In the past it was an opium hot spot. This part of the day was much less offensive, and it was nice seeing the Mekong again! Now I’ve seen it in four of the six countries it passes through.
All in all, it was a successful day and I was happy to get my new 30 day visa stamp so I can spend more time in beautiful Thailand.
The main draw of the UNESCO town of Luang Prabang is the dozens of colorful, gilded vats (or temples) that surround the area. I was a bit hesitant to take lots of pictures while visiting the temples as there are cultural sensitivities regarding the monks, especially as a woman. There are far too many tourists who intrude upon the monks’ daily lives and invade their personal space, meanwhile disrespecting ancient customs. I always make the most conscious effort to not be one of those travelers!
However, the gorgeous architecture was too enticing to resist taking photos entirely, so here are a handful as a taste of what the town has to offer.
The surrounding countryside of Ninh Binh was highly recommended by some friends of mine, so I made sure to stop there on my way up north. The town itself is not very impressive, but there are several small villages accessible by bike as well as Tam Coc, a village near a gorgeous by surrounded by limestone caves and cliffs. You can also climb one of these cliffs, above a cave called Mua, to get a view of the area. In addition to the scenery, I was impressed by friendly people and cheap prices.
After Hong Kong I felt another bout of travel fatigue setting in. I flew to Manila and stayed for just a four-day layover, which was meant to be relaxing but instead just added to my anxieties, as Manila is a rather dirty, hectic, and poverty-stricken city. From Manila I flew to Ho Chi Minh City, which was again extremely hectic and stress-inducing. I was not in the mood to sightsee or take a lot of photos, although I did visit the War Remnants Museum which was a sobering way to spend an afternoon.
When I finally got to the beach town of Nha Trang, it was great to relax and eat some delicious, cheap fish dishes. I finally got back into a travel mood and started sightseeing again. One of the few main sights in Nha Trang is the Long Son Pagoda, a Buddha statue and temple situated about a 20-minute walk from the main part of town. I got lucky and ended up being the only tourist there, although when I was leaving a massive group of talkative Russians was coming through the gate. Also detracting from the peaceful atmosphere were rather aggressive “students” selling overpriced postcards. Despite this, the site was worth seeing and spending a few minutes walking around.
The Big Buddha is located on Lantau Island and is easily accessible by lots of buses and other forms of public transport. I was pretty excited to visit, as it’s the most famous symbol of Hong Kong. Also, it was my first week in SE Asia so the idea of a massive Buddha as opposed to a Jesus statue was a bit of a novelty. I loved the six smaller statues surrounding the Buddha – the six Devas who make offerings representing charity, morality, patience, zeal, meditation, and wisdom. The Po Lin Monastery is also an interesting place to visit, although it was under a lot of construction while I was there, and you can have a nice vegetarian lunch.
The highlight of this trip though was visiting the Wisdom Path, which is a series of massive wooden columns inscribed with the Heart Sutra. The Heart Sutra is, in my limited understanding, a meditation on nothingness and is one of the most important texts in Buddhist philosophy. Set in front of Lantau Peak, the installation brings a deep sense of calm.