Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Wats of Chiang Mai, Thailand

Chiang Mai is Thailand's second city.  Generally, when people visit Thailand, they usually frollow one of three paths: visiting the capital city of Bangkok, going south to enjoy the beaches and various water activities found on the Gulf of Thailand in cities such as Phuket or Koh Samui, or head north to the jungles of Chiang Mai.

As I'm not much of a beach person, on my recent trip to Thailand, I elected to go the northern route and spend a couple of days in Chiang Mai to explore the former capital of the Kingdom of Lanna (1296-1768).  As a kid, I'd been to Chiang Mai once before, but all I remembered of it was the elephants in the jungle.  Beyond that, I didn't really know much about Chiang Mai, and I certainly had no knowledge of the history of the city and the strategic importance of it in the Lanna Kingdom.

Chiang Mai was founded in 1296 by King Mengrai and was quickly established as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom, taking that honor away from the nearby city of Chiang Rai.  Due to a constant threat from neighboring Burma, the city was surrounded by a defensive wall and moat.  The moat still exists today and small sections of the wall still stand as well.  The old city within the city wall still thrives, but over time, especially in recent history, Chiang Mai has rapidly grown and the majority of the city now exists well beyond the old city walls.  Chiang Mai officially became a part of the Kingdom of Siam in 1774, and these days is only second to Bangkok in terms of importance as a cultural, historical and economic center of Thailand.

Chiang Mai has often been associated with its terrific handcrafted goods and as a center for art and culture.  Part of that culture can be seen all over the city in the more than 300 wats that exist within the city limits.  A wat is a Thai word for temple.  As Thailand is overwhelmingly Buddhist, a wat generally refers to a Buddhist temple.

The first day we were in Chiang Mai, we got an up close view of 7 of the 300+ wats in Chiang Mai.  It's difficult to visit the city and not visit at least 1 wat as there seems to be at least 1 or 2 on every street in Chiang Mai.  Having flown to Chiang Mai from Bangkok, and having spent the previous day at some of Bangkok's grandest wats, it was quite a contrast to see the wats of Chiang Mai.  Architecturally and historically they are radically different from what you'll find in the more modern day Bangkok.  These wats in Chiang Mai were built during a period of time when Chaing Mai was not yet a part of Thailand and ruled by a people and a government whose culture was very much set apart from the Thai Buddhist culture for which wats in Bangkok were constructed.

The minute we exited our little tour van at the first wat we visited that day, we were just blown away by the beauty of it.  Really, the beauty in the simplicity of it all.  And how it was just so different from what we had seen previously.  The first wat we visited while we were in Chiang Mai is a little known, not often visited wat on the outskirts of town called Wat Thon Kwain.  Unbeknownst to me, thon kwain is actually the name of a particular kind of tree in Thai.  The wat is so old that it is essentially built almost entirely of wood on a dirt tract.  It's the architecture and the details that went into construction of that wat that was most remarkable to me.  It was so so gorgeously handcrafted, with such intricate detailing in the woodwork and the design.  Standing alone, looking simple and old, it was beautiful.  Perhaps the appeal and beauty of the wat comes from the fact that it is in a more rural part of town and it's obvious that the wat doesn't get many visitors, so therefore it seems a little more quaint and somehow just set aside from all the other wats in Chiang Mai.

The second wat we visited while we were in Chiang Mai was Wat Chiang Man.  Unlike the somewhat remote location of Wat Thon Kwain, Wat Chiang Man is actually located right in the heart of the old city surrounded by the city walls and the moat.  The original wat was built in 1297 and was the first temple of Chiang Mai.  The wat was constructed on the site of the old campgrounds used by King Mengrai when he was constructing his new capital city of Chiang Mai.  This wat is obviously a contrast of 2 different eras.  The front, street-facing side of the wat is a newer structure that was renovated in the 1920s by a famous monk.  The outside of this structure is decorated in very intricate filigree gilded gold designs and each roof eave forms a serpent that protects the building.  Once you walk inside, at the far end of the temple is a large grouping of Buddha statues, with one of the statues housed behind gates.  One of the Buddha statues has an engraving on it that dates it back to 1465, which makes it the oldest surviving statue of the Lanna Kingdom.  The inside walls of the main temple are lined with painted descriptions depicting Buddhist history.

As you walk the grounds of the wat, there are some smaller structures as well as some beautifully maintained grounds.  As you walk to the back side of the main structure, you see that there is an even more amazing structure known as the "Elephant Chedi".  This was the original site of construction of the wat.  The base of the structure is square shaped upon which sit 15 life-sized elephants made of stucco which appear to carry the weight of the upper level of the structure on their backs.  I thought this was really neat, but then again, I really love elephants and elephant figures.  The uppermost part of the structure is a gilded dome, inside which there is a bell shaped carved out relic chamber.  From the relic chamber there was a long piece of string which ran back to the main structure of the wat and was attached on the other end to the hand of a Buddha statue that sat on the back side of the main structure.  This was a monk-blessed piece of string to symbolize the connection between the main structure and the Elephant Chedi.  The last unique part of this wat was that it featured a lotus pond, something not normally found at most Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai; in fact of the often visted wats of Chiang Mai, only Wat Chiang Man and Wat Phra Singh (which we visted later) feature lotus ponds.

Come back for subsequent blog posts regarding the other 5 wats that we visited during the first day of our trip to Chiang Mai...

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Isle of Capri and Sorrento, Italy; and an Update

This was originally typed almost 2 years ago to be posted as a continuation of my cruise through the Mediterranean and Greek Isles.  Unfortunately, life just got in the way and I was never able to finish my report on the trip.

Sadly, with all this time that has passed, I have struggled with whether or not to to back and try and piece this together to finish the trip, or if I should just stop with what I have, move forward and try and resurrect this blog and start anew.  After much though, I've decided to post what I have here on the last port city of my cruise: Naples, Italy.  I won't go back and try and update what I wrote 2 years ago, nor am I going to go through my photo archives to try and add pictures to this post (at least not right now).  I'm just going to publish it the way it was written.  The only thing missing to complete this Mediterranean/Greek Isles trip is my report on my 2 days spent in Rome and all the sights that we saw.  I hope to one day put together a blog post on Rome and it's amazing history.

But for now, this will have to do.

Starting from this point forward, this blog will start all over and pick up on my more recent travel adventures.  But, true to the point of this blog, this will remain a travel blog with my travel stories from all over.  Just for perspective's sake, in the almost 2 years since I've written in this blog, I've actually had quite a few travel experiences; I've been to Whitefish, Montana and parts of Glacier National Park; been to Manhattan; been to Death Valley National Park; took a trip to King's Canyon and Sequoia National Parks; spent a weekend getaway in San Diego; took a day trip to Las Vegas; spent 2 weeks all over Thailand; attended a weekend wedding in Austin and San Antonio, Texas; and am currently planning a Christmas market trip to Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic and Hungary.

I hope you enjoy the rest of my travel adventures....

I spent more time planning for this port of call than any of the others on this cruise. The ship was actually calling at Naples, Italy on this day, and our options for day trips were limitless. We could have done a drive along the Amalfi Coast, or a stop at the beautiful village of Positano, we could have turned it into a historical day with a trip to Pompeii, or a visit to Herculaneum, or even climbed to the top of Mount Vesuvius. But we elected to bypass all of that. On our first trip to Naples, we had already done an Amalfi drive with a stop at Pompeii.

After much hemming and hawing, and many hours of planning and making back up plans, and then back up plans for my back up plans, and changing my mind about 100 times, we settled on a day trip by hydrofoil out to the Isle of Capri. We'd spend the morning wandering around Capri Town and Anacapri before taking a hydrofoil back over to Sorrento. After taking some time to explore Sorrento, we'd hop on a train back to Naples. This was a highly ambitious plan, especially for a busy summer day. The important thing here was to be prepared for anything, have all of my hydrofoil and train schedules, have back up schedules, and be flexible in the event that things did not work out the way I had planned.

My biggest concern on the day was Capri. As we were headed out to an island that is extremely popular with tourists during the summer, there was a fear that with the limited transportation schedules from the mainland to the island and vice versa that we could be in some real trouble if the timing wasn't right. I'd read horror stories of how lines to get on hydrofoils back to Naples in time to catch a departing cruise ship could be long, or tickets could be sold out, etc. I certainly didn't want to deal with the headache of that. So in weighing my options, I thought it prudent to do Capri first, and then Sorrento in the afternoon, that way, we'd hopefully get to Capri before the crowds did, and Sorrento we could toss by the wayside in the event that schedules started to become a problem.

As time was of the essence and our ship pulled into the harbor in Naples, we made sure that we were ready to get off the ship as soon as we were cleared to do so. From where the ship docks, the walk to where the hydrofoils leave for Capri is literally right next door, less than a 5 minute walk away. Purchasing tickets for the hydrofoil was a bit confusing though as there are multiple companies that operate boats to Capri and we needed to make sure that we were purchasing tickets from the company operating the next hydrofoil leaving for Capri. These hydrofoils were much larger than I had anticipated them being. And as expected, they were busy. Our hydrofoil, which must have held a couple hundred people, was packed.

The jaunt across the Bay of Naples and over to the Isle of Capri was a little over one hour. By the time we arrived into Marina Grande in Capri, it seemed as if the island was just starting to wake up. So as to not waste anytime, we immediately bought the funicular tickets that would take us up to Capri Town, and the bus tickets that would take us across the island to Anacapri. To get from Marina Grande up to the main town on the island, Capri Town, you can either take a bus up the very steep hill, or you can take a funicular. The funicular runs underneath the granite and limestone cliffs that give Capri it's dramatic sight lines and takes less than 5 minutes to get from the top to the bottom. Each funicular car only holds 75 people, so you can imagine how busy it must get when the crowds really start showing up at Marina Grande. Luckily for us, once we bought our ticket, we got in line for the funicular, waited for one to come down to the Marina, loaded into it and were on our way to the clifftop getaway known as Capri Town.

Our plan was to go to out to Anacapri first and then work our way back to Capri Town. We hoped that by doing it this way, we'd eventually find ourselves going in the opposite direction of the crowds. Once up at Capri Town, we were given instructions on where to find the bus stop, and after a 2-3 minute walk, we discovered that the bus we wanted to Anacapri was just about to take off. After we packed ourselves in, and I mean literally packed ourselves as the buses are tiny, we were off. So far, our timing had been impeccable.

After a 15 minute drive through narrow winding mountain roads that afforded some gorgeous views of Capri's famous cliffs, we arrived in Capri's second city of Anacapri. One of the most popular things to do in Anacapri is ride the chairlift to the top of Mount Solare, Capri's highest mountain. Now, this isn't any old chairlift. In fact, I've never experienced anything like this before. The chairlift is a one-seater that only allows each adult adult to ride by themselves, strapped in solely by a metal bar that comes down in front of you as soon as you sit back in the chair. I'm not sure that anything like this in the States would ever pass an inspection. It's way too easy during the ride to lift the safety bar and fall right out of your seat. The chairlift itself doesn't get very high off the ground until you near the top of the mountain where it gets a bit steeper, but it's not too bad. The incredible part of this chairlift though is the distance over which it has been built. Moving at a fairly moderate clip, the "ride" still takes about 15 minutes one-way. Meanwhile, as you ride up to the top of Mount Solare, the view to your right is that of the town of Anacapri, and off in the distance is the beautiful Bay of Naples. It's rather breathtaking to be sitting in this chairlift, feeling like you're soaring over grape vineyards and people's backyards as you look out at a small city situated on a gorgeous island in Italy. Wow. How could it get any better? It really was one of the most incredible experiences ever. I had heard about the chairlift before, but I never in my wildest imagination would have pictured anything like this.

Unfortunately, once we got to the top of Mount Solare we didn't really have time for anything other than a quick look around. I had read that one of the more fun experiences about the island is to hike down from the top of Mount Solare back to Anacapri. As you wind your way down the mountain, the views of Capri are supposed to be spectacular. Regrettably, we wouldn't have time for such an adventure on this trip. After spending about 10-15 minutes up at the top, we took the chairlift back down to Anacapri. During this 15 minute ride back to the town, we noticed that a lot more people were making their way up the mountain which probably meant that the whole island was starting to get busy! It seems that we made the right decision by coming out to Anacapri first and heading up to the top of Mount Solare right away.

There was one other thing that I had wanted to see while we were in Anacapri, and that was the Church of San Michele. Located a short walk down the main shopping street in Anacapri is the very unassuming Church of San Michele. The distinctive aspect about this church is the beautiful majolica mosaic tiled floor known as the Garden of Eden featuring the Tree of Temptation, the serpent, the animals, and Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden by an angel. The majolica tiles that form the mosaic, were designed, created, and installed on the floor of the church in the late 1700s. The floor is so delicate that guests visiting are no longer allowed to walk on the floor of the church. Instead, a wooden raised boardwalk has been installed around the perimeter of the inside of the church. Church visitors can walk on the boardwalk, all the way around the beautiful tiled floor, to get an up close view of the painting. After a visit inside the church, you can take a winding staircase to the church's second floor balcony so that you can look down at the Garden of Eden scene. It's absolutely stunning.

Our journey from Anacapri back to Capri Town was much more difficult than our journey to Anacapri. There's one main bus stop in Anacapri and I had heard that the later in the day you catch the bus, the longer the wait becomes, especially in the afternoons. Before the bus arrives in Anacapri, its previous stop is at the famous Blue Grotto, so the bus usually arrives at Anacpari completely packed, and it's already a small bus, so I could only imagine how bad it gets. When we got to the bus stop, there were 3 people standing ahead of us. For some reason, the bus took forever to arrive, and when it got there, the 3 people ahead of us could barely push their way on to the bus. When the next bus arrived, we literally had to squeeze and use every last available bit of space just to get ourselves on the bus so we could get back to Capri Town.

Once we got back to Capri Town we strolled around this posh city for a little bit. Capri Town is known as the Beverly Hills or Rodeo Drive of Italy. It's easy to see why. There's a very upscale, outdoor shopping street, under the palm trees, and nice weather, it is sort of reminiscent of Beverly Hills. Everything in Capri is extremely expensive. Visiting here is definitely not for the faint of heart or light in the walletbook. The only thing I was able to afford was a shot glass for my collection and some gelato. Can't ever pass up an opportunity for gelato!

After a little bit of time wandering around Capri Town, we needed to head back down the funicular and to Marina Grande in order to catch our hydrofoil over to Sorrento. When the funicular reached Marina Grande we realized why coming to Capri first was the best decision. The line at the bottom of the mountain to head up to Capri Town was incredibly long and disorganized, it was almost mass chaos.

A short while later, we boarded our hydrofoil and headed off towards Sorrento. Situated at the head of the Amalfi coast, Sorrento is a small, quiet seaside town filled with character and charm.