Barefoot biking from Shatin to Plover Cove… an occasion to shoot some marvelous landscape!

Last week-end, a friend of mine, Matthew, took me around on a bike ride, from Shatin to Plover Cove. The interesting part of this bike ride is that the whole ride takes place on biking lanes and in a very lovely seaside atmosphere. It is also an occasion to shoot some marvelous landscapes on the way, as the whole area has some gorgeous views.

Renting a bike

Renting a bike is very easily done near the river, in Shatin. The total price is about 60 HKD for a whole day. You can also rent “family bikes” (sort of 4-wheeled bikes for several persons to ride). All you need to do is to leave your id card information.

As I run and hike now more or less regularly barefoot, I decided to go for biking barefoot. Obviously, the pedals of a mountain bike do leave a dent, but my feet have become sufficiently conditioned now, not to suffer an exaggerated inconvenience.

After that, as long as you follow the coastline, it is an easy scenic ride along Tolo Harbour. Along the way, you can come across some interesting sights. Like for example, the wonderful Tsz Shan monastery.

 

Tsz Shan Monastery

This monastery is quite recent, as it was completed only in 2015. Its main feature is the statue of the goddess of mercy, Guan Yin. At 76 meters tall, this white bronze statue towers now over the Tolo harbour, being a recognizable landmark. The monastery is quite popular, to the point that it enforces a strict online booking policy to visit it. If you want to enter, bookings must take place at least one month in advance.

Tsz Shan Monastery
The statue of Guan Yin at Tsz Shan Monastery

The other way of taking a peak inside this monastery, is to fly a drone above or around, which is what I did with my Mavic Pro. The monastery was built thanks to financing from Li Ka-Shing, one of the richest men in Hong Kong. It was even rumored that the Guan Yin statue would be his tomb in the future, but he denied the story.

I also filmed the various places we visited, from Tsz Shan Monastery to Plover Cove:

 

Plover Cove

Plover Cove is another interesting spot, pretty much at the end of the 30-kms ride from Shatin. Originally, a piece of Tolo Harbour, this portion of the sea was drained in order to make it a reservoir of freshwater for Hong Kong. Its dam is reputed for having been the greatest such work at the time of its construction (in the 1960s). Today, the place is an ideal vacation spot for many hongkongers who enjoy riding bicycles on the dam, or flying kites.

Plover Cove reservoir
Plover Cove, with on the left the freshwater side and on the right the sea

Of course, I had to take a “dronie” with Matthew on that occasion.

Plover cove dronie
A “dronie” of Matthew and me on Plover Cove reservoir dam

Tolo Harbour is also used for quite a number of nautical sports. Some people use a sailing board, others prefer waterskiing. Here, you can see a group practicing sailing board with the Tsz Shan monastery appearing in the background.

Tolo Harbour
Sailing Board in Tolo Harbour

 

Getting back

After the exhilarating 30 kms ride to Plover Cove, now came the time to ride back! Although the path was as flat going as coming back, of course, muscles started feeling the effort.

Also, if you can do it at all, do leave in the morning. In the afternoon, plenty of people who do not know to ride start appearing and are a real hazard on biking paths. In that, the return was rather more stressful than the first leg of the trip.

Once we got back to Shatin and returned the bikes, my feet were slightly tender from biking for several hours barefoot. I thus decided to go home barefoot. And obviously, this involved the challenge of taking the MTR… barefoot!

Barefoot in the MTR
The escalator does not feel painful at all, contrary to what you might expect.

I went barefoot all the way, until home. Most people didn’t look at my feet, those who did, didn’t care. I was in a sportive attire, so I guess this attracted less attention too.

The reason for doing this was partly to challenge my own comfort zone, partly also to test my limits too. I did use a public toilet in Shatin, but I wore my sandals (could not conceive walking in the urine of others).

Nevertheless, the whole experience was interesting and liberating. I might swear I had more looks from other bikers on my biking barefoot than while in the MTR!

After the exercise, my glutes were quite tired as it had been quite a few years since I had done a long bike ride (I used to ride for long distances in Belgium). But this shows the different facets of Hong Kong. A city where biking or hiking is just a few MTR stations away from the urban sprawls of the center.

 

 

Chinese New Year in Bangkok

Over the past five years, I managed to see a number of celebrations of Chinese new year in Bangkok. While similar to some degree to the traditional Chinese festival, they differ too. Indeed, the Thai version has a more marked Buddhist flavor to it. Of course, this goes together with the Thai syncretism and the hotchpotch of beliefs which mix Hinduism, Buddhism, Chinese traditions and animism.

 

Red is the color

Of course, wearing red is almost an obligation on Chinese New Year, as this color is said to bring prosperity.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Even little kids dress up in quipao, the traditional Chinese dress.

For tourists, this is also the occasion to bargain to buy some traditional red garb and attempt to “blend in”…

 

A family reunion

Just like in China and in Hong Kong, Chinese New Year is mainly a family reunion. Families often go together to the temple, but mainly just like in China, it is an occasion to meet relatives.

Incense in Chinatown temple
Chinese Thais are lighting incense in a temple of Chinatown

People often go in family to the temple. Like in this case, the mother and daughter.

Chinese New year Wat Traimit
A mother and her daughter pray at Wat Traitmit on Chinese New year

The biggest event however takes place on Chinese New Year eve. Indeed on that occasion, it is believed that wishes have the best chance of being realized upon the passage to a new (Chinese) year. Hence, beyond burning incense, Thais also splurge on huge candles as can be seen in the picture below at Wat Traimit in Chinatown. Obviously, the most expensive or biggest candle is believed to bring the most “luck”.

It is a money thing…

There is a heavy confusion among Westerners between what they see as “faith” or “religiosity”, and the own view of Thais on their practices. Thai modern Buddhism is, with some exceptions, mainly oriented on materialism and obtaining immediate material benefits. It goes to the point that some temples have been shamelessly riding the wave of greed, by posting publicity for Mercedes at their entrance! The most uanabashed Thai invitation to relinquish your money to get more money is probably the “garlands of banknotes” hung in the temples…

Garlands of Banknotes.
ON Chinese New Year eve, garlands of banknotes are hung in the temple to incite people to give more.

On some occasions, monks can be rude enough to be checking their smartphones under the nose of the worshippers…

Monk and smartphone
A monk checks his smartphone while faithfuls pray at a Chinatown temple

Probably the most outrageous was seeing a famous brand of German cars “sponsoring” a temple on that occasion:

 

Sponsorship of temples
A German car sponsor a temple in central Bangkok

 

The bigger candle brings the biggest luck…

The Chinese tradition says that you should be burning incense as soon as possible after midnight on Chinese New Year. Where in Hong Kong, this causes regularly some scuffles, to the temple, in Bangkok, things are taken way more easily. People go to burn incense no matter what the time, as long as it is done on the eve of Chinese New Year.

Candles of Wat Traimit
Giant candles set alight at Wat Traimit in Bangkok’s Chinatown

Of course, the candles, themselves make for interesting subjects at night time.

Wat Traimit Candles
Flames burn as the giant candles of Wat Traimit consume themslves

Business at the forefront

Chinese New Year is also an occasion for doing business. On that single day, the police is rather understanding with the small-time hawkers which populate Bangkok. Yaowarat road, the main artery in Chinatown becomes  a  pedestrian area on that day Despite this, the heavy crowds and the sheer number of vendors make it a very difficult area to walk through.

Crowd on CNY eve
The huge crowd pressing in Chinatown on CNY eve

Of course, among the stuff sold, you have the habitual “snake oil” peddlers as below (with English advertisement too!).

Chinatown on CNY
Chinatown in Bangkok on Chinese New Year eve

 

 

Bangkok adds a Buddhist touch to Chinese New year

Traditions, for Chinese New Year in Bangkok, are mostly similar, with incense being offered, but an interesting departure from Chinese tradition is that instead of food, the offerings are often lotus flowers as the two ladies below can be seen holding at Wat Traimit, the main temple in Chinatown.

Wat Traimit Chinese new year
A lady places incense at Wat Traimit on Chinese New Year 2017.

The meaning of the lotus flower is very Buddhist in its core, but very few Thai are aware of the roots. In fact, the lotus flower means the purity of the body, speech, and mind. Indeed, while rooted in the mud, its flowers blossom on long stalks floating above the muddy waters of attachment and desire. In Thai temples, the symbol of detachment, becomes another reason to earn mone.

Lotus flowers
Lotus flowers are presented as an offering at Chinese New Year 2017 in Wat Traimit.

Within Chinatown itself, Wat Traimit, the main temple of the area hosts a 2-ton massive gold Buddha statue. On Chinese New Year eve, many Thais come to pray for favors (or take selfies in front of it).

 

Buddha of Wat Traimit on CNY
The 2-ton massive gold Buddha of Wat Traimit is particularly sought on Chinese New Year eve.

Selfie Mania

Last but not least, Thailand would not be Thailand if there was not a selfie mania on Chinese New Year. In temples, when giving offerings or anything, Thais will try to grab a selfie to post on social networks.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

How to get there?

Yaowarat is a quite long road extending through Chinatown and large parts of the area are reserved to pedestrians on Chinese New Year. Your best bet is still to take the MRT to Hua Lamphong, then to walk on foot to Yaowarat. On the way, very near to the train station, you will see Wat Traimit. To have a glimpse of the agitation and the vibe of Chinese New Year, do drop there.

Japan: a visit to Sensoji shrine

When you visit Tokyo, a must visit if you are in the area of Asakusa is certainly Sensoji, the oldest shrine of the city. A visit to Sensoji shrine is not only the occasion of watching Japanese and their beliefs which intricates elements of Shintoism along with Buddhism. It is also the occasion of watching numerous ladies and men dressed up in elaborate ceremony kimonos.

A very old shrine

Sensoji (浅草寺)is so called because it is another way to read the character for “Asakusa”, where the temple is located. I mentioned earlier that Sensoji was the oldest temple in Tokyo, and its establishment dates back to 645 AD. Obviously, the current temple looks too new to still be the original temple. All the more as the area was destroyed in the WWII bombardments.

Despite the current relative “freshness” of the shrine building, Sensoji still carries a special weight in the heart of the Tokyo dwellers. Before entering the temple grounds themselves, there is a very famous shopping street, Nakamise street, mainly targeted to tourists, but still very interesting for visitors. Originally, the street appeared when traders obtained the permission to set up shops in the street leading to the shrine, several centuries ago. While the shops may have been chased away from time to time, and were destroyed to the ground in WWII, today they are back into their prime.

Nakamise street
The incredible vibe of Nakamise street, near Sensoji

Things to buy in Nakamise street

Since you are already there, you may want to buy some souvenirs. It might be the occasion to buy some Geta, those traditional Japanese wooden sandals (very comfortable, by the way).

There are shops like the below shop, but while expensive on the main street, you find some interesting deals either in made to order geta or generally sized geta in side streets.

Geta shop
A geta shop in Nakamise street

I got my own geta from a side street with a very lovely couple. They fit well, and are just as comfortable as the Berkemann slides I habitually wear too.

My Japanese geta
The pair of Geta I bought in Japan. Stylish and easy to wear.

There are plenty of sites explaining how to wear geta, but the general idea is that they should be slightly smaller than your foot. That way, your feet hangs out a little bit.

Besides geta, the side streets also display some lovely fans as these hand painted ones (a bargain at 1,100 JPY).

Hand-painted fans
Hand painted fans near Nakamise street

The gate to the shrine

The gate to the shrine itself is painted in tones to remind of thunder. This is logical, as it is called Kaminarimon (雷門, “Thunder Gate).

Kaminarimon
The Kaminarimon gate of Sensoji

It is nearby that I asked the two lovely Japanese girls if I could take their picture in kimono and they kindly agreed.

Japanese girls in Kimono
Nihonjin girls in Kimono

As much as possible, it is recommended to ask the permission of people to take their picture, as generally, it is frowned on taking pictures even in a public space. A smile and a few words in Japanese help a lot in that respect.

It must be said that shrines and temples are often places used for photoshoots of kimonos. Like this group where they were focusing on the elaborate obis (the “belt”) of these furisode. A furisode is a ceremony kimono worn by unmarried young girls and is typically recognizable by the long floating sleeves.

Photoshoot of kimonos
A photo shoot of kimonos focusing on the elaborated obis.

When shooting your picture, if you know some Japanese, it will allow you to distinguish between the “real” Japanese in kimono and those tourists who wear kimonos to have photo sessions.

For example, the two young ladies below were from Hong Kong (!) and immediately corrected me when I asked if I could take their picture. They kindly agreed nevertheless to have their picture taken.

HK tourist in kimono
A Hong Kong tourist posing in Kimono

The shrine

The meaning of Sensoji probably escapes me a bit, but from inside the shrine itself, you can have a nice view on the bustle in the courtyard as well as on the Kaminarimon .

View from inside of Sensoji
A view from the inside of Sensoji

Later, as we went back, our daughter, Maria-Sophia fell in love with the gacha machines. She was too cute, asking to buy one of those little balls with premiums inside.

Little girl and gacha machine
When a little girl falls in love with a gacha machine

In short, either for shopping or for visiting the shrine, Sensoji is absolutely the place to go if you come to Tokyo.

Nakamise street another angle
Nakamise street and the bustling activity

Dragon and Tiger pagoda

In my previous post, I mentioned about visting the Eslite bookstore. Thereafter, I decided to visit one of the main landmarks of Kaohsiung, namely the dragon and tiger pagoda. Built with two giant figures of the said animals through the mouth of which you must enter, this pagoda is another must-see in Kaohsiung.

A bit out of the way

To be honest, reaching this pagoda takes some effort as it is located quite some way from any MRT station.

I will provide instructions at the end of the post, but in short, it takes a long walk from the MRT Kaohsiung Arena to reach the pagoda. I was lugging of course, both my camera bag and a tripod. On the way to the pagoda, I came across a railway crossing manned by a guard. Originally, I wanted to shoot the rails extending in the distance with the sunset light, but the guard asked me to pass behind the barrier.

The guard was so kind as to propose me to set up my tripod at his place, as a train was passing. Thanks to him, I managed to get a spectacular shot of a train rushing in the sunset.

Train at a railway crossing in Kaohsiung, Taiwan
Kaohsiung: a train rushes at a railway crossing while a guard stands watch

I continued walking on that endless road, and carried on the last bit of the road barefoot, as my feet were truly tired from dragging in my flip-flops. It is strange how my feet got less tired thereafter.

A pagoda built pretty recently

The pagoda’s colors come across as extremely gorgeous during the day as well as at night. This is probably due to the Pagoda not being very old, as it was built in 1976.

At night, the effect is quite stunning, especially if you take the time of using a long exposure. The lights and the color take a special golden hue which makes it look quite special.

Dragon and tiger pagoda
The magnificent dragon and tiger pagoda in Kaohsiung

Other sights

The dragon and tiger pagoda is not the only stuff to see around the lake where it is located. A bit further is another pagoda, called the “Spring and Autumn pavillons”, which was built in 1953. It thus predates the dragon and tiger pagodas, but it is still the same gorgeous style.

 

Near the Tiger and dragon pagoda, the spring and autumn pavillons
Near the Tiger and dragon pagoda, the spring and autumn pavillons rise.

This is not the only sight. If you just turn your back to the dragon and tiger pagoda, then you can play on patterns and lines as in this picture.

Patterns near the Tiger and dragon pagoda
On the gangway to the dragon and tiger pagoda, you can see these decorations which make for a nice pattern.

Again, from a technical point of view, the best results are obtained with a tripod and long exposure, which may run counter to the expectation of some people of “traveling light”.

An old temple.

In the same area, you can also see an older temple, the Tzu Chi temple, the facade of which is heavily ornated.

Tzu Chi temple
Just opposite the Dragon and Tiger Pagoda, stands the Tzu Chi temple.

Tzu Chi is one of the four major Buddhist sects in Taiwan, hence not astonishing that they have a temple in such a prominent position. In this very syncretic typical aspect of Asian Buddhism, the temple hosts Chinese gods as well…

But after coming to this place for shooting the pagoda, I was not going to linger. Up on my list was the Ruifeng night market. So, to save time (and also because I was tired!), I caught a marauding taxi to that place. But that’s the subject of a next post…

Barefoot hiking in Shoushan national park

The route to Shoushan national park

In my previous post, I mentioned that I first stopped at Formosa Boulevard station to take pics of the “Dome of light”. The moment I left my hotel, I decided that this hike would be made barefoot or at least without shoes.

After checking the route to Shoushan national park, my conclusion was that I would do best to get down from the MRT at Aozhidi station, and continue on foot… Obviously I underestimated the distance. I got down at Aozhidi station anyway, where I discovered the large city park. By now, was starting to get tired with walking and standing, so took off my flip-flops and enjoyed resting my weary feet by walking in the grass.

This didn’t mean that I was not there for shooting pics. So, some context pics, I did shoot, despite the lighting being really too flat and hazy.

Decoration in the park
Decoration in the park

For being in autumn, with some leaves already falling here and there, there were however still flowers to be seen in the park.

Flowers in the park
Flowers on background of urban cityscape.

As it was a week day, and we were in the morning, not a lot of people were in this park. Just some locals chilling out like this lady. The sight reminded me of that movie’s title “barefoot in the park”.

Barefoot in the park
A lady chills out in a park of Kaohsiung.

City bikes: the ideal way to explore a city

My excursion took another level however, when I discovered that you could rent bikes for a moderate amount (free of charge for 1/2 hr, and only 5 NT$ until one hour).

Rental post for city bikes
City Bikes in Kaohsiung

I grabbed one bike, and as sandals can be dangerous for biking, I biked barefoot, starting thus my journey up towards Shoushan national park. Unfortunately, signage is not very clear, so I took it a bit on the long side.

I managed to find another park near the museum of fine arts, where I took a selfie. The parks are always very lovely in their arrangement and very well kept in Kaohsiung, and that is part of the charm of this little coastal town.

Bridge over pond
A little bridge over a pond in the park of the Museum of fine arts

Getting lost is still discovering

I used  google maps to find my way, but still, the lack of appropriate signage means that I lost an important entrance point to the Shoushan national park. I didn’t mind that in the least, as for me, when you are on a vacation, getting “lost” is still a way of discovering. I was biking/walking in one of the more industrial parts of the city.

Old machine
AN old and rusty machine left in a side treet of the Shoushan district

This allowed me to search for photographic “targets of opportunity”. For example this old and rusty machine in a side street.

Textures

By then, I had returned the bicycle and was continuing on foot. The area, very much an industrial area with a few cement factories and a boating workshop had some interesting gems, both in figurative and in the proper sense. In the proper sense, as I met this gentleman named Ting, who allowed me to shoot some of his wonderful stones and gems.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Less attractive, but always interesting for textures, was to shoot some details on a boat engine stored on the street.

 

Boat engine detail
Details of a boat engine left out on the street in Kaohsiung.

That workshop even stored some boats outside, giving rise to some quite surreal scenes.

Navigating the city
A boat in the city: a little boat stored outside a boat mechanic workshop

 

At the national park

Buddhist temple in Shoushan

The Bouddhist temple in Shoushan

Finally, around noon, i.e. a couple hours after my original plan, I arrived near the entrance of the national park of Shoushan. This park is open to the public, so no need to pay any entrance fee. There is a big Buddhist monastery at the entrance, with some nice views over the sprawling city below. I used a mirror on the parking to shoot a self-portrait (yes, not a “selfie”).

Near the Buddhist monastery
Near the Buddhist monastery.

However, there are also some stray dogs (which is strange as not far from the park, there is also a pet shelter), and they can be pretty aggressive if you get close (I guess because there was a puppy with them).

Barefoot hiking

I mentioned in an earlier post that I had started running barefoot as a way of allowing my left knee to recover and exercise again. Well, beyond barefoot running, I also started barefoot hiking, and Shoushan national park is an ideal setting for this as there is no rock clambering involved. Barefoot hiking is probably one of the best ways of really “feeling” the nature and your environment.

Shoushan national park
A gorgeous view from up there… In Shoushan national park

Later, as I began my climb in the park I took off my slippers. As I began walking up the park, the stairs and flat areas were pretty easy. Even these rocks were not that difficult to walk upon. The freshness of the ground and the various textures instead were definitely an enticing experience.

Barefoot hiking in Shoushan
Barefoot on the rocks: fun and not painful at all

 

Barefoot hiking: sensory overload

The variety of surfaces makes it an extremely interesting sensory experience when you hike barefoot. From the fresh feel of the mud and leaves, to the angles on the rocks and even every little asperity of the path. Even the most uncomfortable sections still leave you with a lot of sensations. I walked on a very jagged and rocky path which made me understand the saying “death by a thousand cuts”. While not cutting my skin at all, it obliged me to take it extra slow, watch my step at all times, but also was a high demand on my footplant’s nerves. At the end of the day, my foot cried mercy from all the sensation (don’t forget, it was my very first barefoot hike on uneven terrain).

The encounters on this hike were also interesting. I was not alone in doing barefoot hiking. This seems more of a trend in Taiwan. I saw at least 3 other guys doing the same. One of the guys, Xiao, even posed with me for a selfie and of course, the “foot selfie”). Xiao was so happy to see another barefoot hiking, that he even offered me some typical Chinese roots (very delicious).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

It seems Taiwan has a more relaxed attitude towards barefoot hiking or running. I even saw a guy running barefoot on a track near Kaohsiung arena.

The welcoming spirit of Taiwan for hikers

For being a national park, I found Shoushan national park to be very welcoming to visitors. In a rest stop, somewhere in the middle of the trail, you can find a shelter where they offer free hot tea! As I had emptied my water by that point, it was a very welcome halt.

Tea for visitors
Rest stop in Shoushan national park offering tea for visitors

At this point, I believe the distance covered was around 2 kms, but I was walking very slowly, as it was a very jagged and uneven terrain, and my feet were starting to have difficulties. However, before returning, I took a halt at the “4 banyan” rest stop. At lot of retirees keeping active there!

4 banyan rest stop
Old people taking a rest at the 4 banyan rest stop

Later, I headed back down… And found that I was near to the original temple featured earlier.

Back to the beginning
Full circle as I come down below near the Buddhist temple seen earlier.

It was where I met a tour guide, who despite his limited English, tried to explain me about the botanic qualities of several trees in the park. I really appreciated that encounter and it confirmed my opinion that inhabitants of Kaohsiung are incredibly kind and welcoming. The whole excursion took several hours, but were absolutely lovely.

Wat Sanam Chai – An unknown ruin of Thai history

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Wat Sanam Chai, a temple in ruins in the city of Suphanburi, is an interesting visit, far from the throngs of tourists in the neighboring Ayutthaya.

Suphanburi is a city of historical significance as it is located on the direct pathway for invading armies from Burma. That’s why a number of battles were fought on those grounds, and Wat Sanam Chai is a reminder of one of these battles.

A mausoleum

Wat Sanam Chai nowadays is in ruin. Originally built as early as 1203 AD, the current ruins date back to the Ayutthaya period. The main feature is a sort of tumulus, or pagoda, originally thought to have been 70-80m high. In 1961, during restoration works at that pagoda, human remains and ashes were found inside the tumulus. It appears that beyond being a temple, it was also the resting place of warriors who had been killed during the frequent clashes with the Burmese armies. Several battles were fought with Burma in this province in the Ayutthaya period. The symbol of the province is, after all two war elephants fighting…

Peacefulness

Wat Sanam chai sunrise
Sun rising in the morning fog is an unforgettable experience at Wat Sanam Chai.

Where Ayutthaya has too many tourists for its own good, Wat Sanam Chai appears to be out of time itself.

Peacefulness imbues this place, mainly because of its remoteness and the lack of visitors. However, the presence of some Buddha statues do remind that this is still  a place of worship for Buddhists. You should also remember it is a place of rest where dead warriors lie. Just let the peacefulness imbue you and think about the centuries of history and war about which these ruins talk in their silence.

Another Buddha statue located behind the Pagoda itself.

How to get there?

Several ways, the train being the most inconvenient. You are better off if you can drive or have a driver take you there. As this place is a bit off the track, you will have to follow the google maps provided below to reach the ruins. It is not far from the main highway from Bangkok, but you must have nevertheless to make  a dangerous u-turn on the highway…

Ideally, this visit would be combined with the artisanal drum-making village of Ekkarat, and a tour to Ayutthaya.

Hua Lamphong train station in Bangkok – Memory of times to be no more

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Where some backpackers might be familiar with the Hua Lamphong train station, in Bangkok, most people ignore this wonderful station. It is a rich location for street photography and, depending on the time of day, the colors can be absolutely stunning (see the gallery above).

It was recently decided to move that station away to Bang Sue and to transform the current Hua Lamphong station in museum, so I can only invite you to visit it now, as long as it is still in service.

A classic architecture

Hua Lamphong station’s construction started in 1910, at about the same time that many European train stations were erected. Although railways were still in their infancy, King Rama V launched railways in Thailand already since 1891. At the same time, another Asian power, Japan,  also raced to adopt European technology to modernize its society. Of course, the architect building the train station was European too, and more precisely, Italian, Mario Tamagno (more on his creations here). Being Italian, obviously, he permeated his construction with neo-renaissance style (he also built a number of other landmarks of Bangkok, see the link above).

Photography in the station

Hua Lamphong is first and foremost  a place of passage. While nowadays, planes are much cheaper and more convenient, the train remains the only affordable transportation for country-dwelling Thais. A place where country immigrants land when arriving to Bangkok, or where they transit on their way back to the province, it provides very interesting sights and photographic opportunities.

Using black and white also allows to focus on the essentials in a place where there are a lot of directing lines.

Focusing on the people in the station can also provide interesting photographic opportunities and cute scenes as this lady fanning her puppy.

A lady refreshes a puppy while waiting for a train.

The ultimate adventure: taking the train!

Finally, if you are ready to face hellish travel conditions, grab a ticket and go for a quick trip to Ayutthaya. While absolutely disastrous in terms of comfort, this provides a very authentic experience, especially if you travel in third class. Be advised however that there is no aircon, and fans sometimes don’t even work.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Thailand is moving towards implementing a high-speed train (when, remains to be seen), so these scenes are liable to disappear one day. I would thus invite you to go and enjoy the extraordinary atmosphere in that station as long as it is still there.

How to get there?

Either you grab a taxi, or you take the MRT to the Hua Lamphong station, either way, there is no way to be confused. There are other minor stations around Bangkok which are just as interesting, but I will address one of those in a future post.

For now, please note that the station is also very close to Wat Traimit, a chinatown temple which features a 2-ton massive gold Buddha statue (more to come soon!).

The map for Hua Lamphong station:

The Giant Buddha of Hong Kong

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A big curiosity of Lantau is the Giant Buddha of Nong Ping (also called Tian Tan Buddha). A famous landmark in Hong Kong, it is a place especially frequented by Asian visitors (Westerners do it more because it is a “must do”).

How to get there?

The most convenient (and expensive!): the cable car

Situated on the island of Lantau (where is also the airport), the monastery and the statue can be reached in two different way. The most popular one is to take the cable car ride to the top, riding across several ridges on what must probably be one of the most scenic rides in Asia. The cable car also gets full marks for convenience as it is just a few steps away from the MTR station of Tung Chung.

The cheapest way: ferry and bus

The second, a bit less convenient solution is to take a ferry from Central pier to Mui Wo, and then get a ride on a bus for 40 minutes. This latter solution is quite interesting as you get to enjoy the skill of bus drivers negotiating the tight curves on this mountainous island, but it takes quite some time. Expect also a long queue on the return if you are visiting on a week-end.

What is there to see?

The Giant Buddha in itself is not a big deal historically or artistically as it was something built quite recently (1993), but it contains a number of symbols of Buddhist belief (among which, what is alleged to be cremated remains of the Buddha himself, which are probably as authentic as 90% of Catholic relics).

When you arrive by cable car, you arrive at a sort of fake village, Nong Ping village. Nothing genuine to see there, just a number of souvenir shops and restaurants, and some shops trying to commoditise Buddhist stuff.

Overall, there is neither a lot of solemnity, nor a lot of peace in the Po Lin Monastery, mainly because it is what CNN calls a “tourist trap”.  Selfie-takers by far outnumber anybody visiting for religious purposes. Visit it if you must, otherwise it is alright to give it a pass.

Feral cattle: don’t play with!

A bit of a warning here: a lot of feral cattle can be seen hanging around Po Lin monastery. While in appearance harmless, these cattle are however wild animals; I always cringe when I see tourists patting, posing right near to them or even tapping (hard!) on their muzzle.

Do keep your distances from the cattle!

As they are feral, you should keep your distances at all times and not touch them. And please don’t feed them, as this is extremely dangerous for them; during hikes on Lantau island, I could see trash cans raided by cows who risk swallowing plastic bags or lose feeding habits. Feeding cattle is dangerous for you and for them.

This cow looks quiet but has very pointy looking horns, so keep your distances…

Ayutthaya and its marvels

Wat Mahathat in Ayutthaya

One of my preferred cities in Thailand was Ayutthaya. About one hour drive from Bangkok, it exuded history at every angle. Although a very touristy place, it is also a place which contains an extraordinary calm and peacefulness, far from the bustling Bangkok, for example. Contributing to that feeling is probably the numerous ruins that fill the city, the peaceful gardens and the feeling that life is somehow stopped.

One of the subsisting seating Buddhas at Wat Mahathat

The ruins of Ayutthaya

After its destruction by Burmese armies in 1767, and the horrors and destruction committed during that sack, Ayutthaya never recovered its original place of capital of the Siamese empire. A marking memory of the destruction can be found in the rows of beheaded dancers.

 

In Ayutthaya, a memory of the destruction wrought by the Burmese invaders can be found in these rows of beheaded dancers.

You wonder if the peace you find in that city is not also some heritage of its bloody history. Where ruins and walls cannot be silent enough to remind you about the past destruction and sorrow which took place in that city. History is mixed with current day life and at every angle you see a scene that takes you back to the past.

What to do in Ayutthaya?

Nowadays, it is lovely to visit to see the remnants of the architecture of the Siamese XVIIIth century, as well as some traces of the past violence, such as the beheaded dancers. With the short distance from Bangkok, it is perfectly suitable for a day trip. Nevertheless, I should warn you never to ride the elephants. These animals are tortured to serve as tourist amusement tools, and you are definitely not helping them by helping to perpetuate this industry.

Pink elephant
A mahout colors an elephant in pink in Ayutthaya

When you have five minutes and want to relax, you may go and have a coffee at Iudia on the river, the lovely coffee shop and guesthouse facing the ruins of Wat Phutthaisawan.

To get there, you can either take a bus or a boat (with the caveat that transportation in Thailand is absolutely haphazard and roads extremely risky). Train is not recommended for the sheer discomfort and time it takes to get to destination. Self-drive might be safer, provided you can handle the adventurous Thai traffic.