Chiang Mai: Day Two – Lampang

The usual elephant camp / handicraft village / long-neck tribal zoo day tours that most Chiang Mai travel agencies offer don’t appeal to us so we decided to go to Lampang instead to see Wat Phra Tat Lampang Luang. Our hotel wanted to charge us about 2000 baht for a driver to do this, so that was a fairly simple hell-no decision.

Alec in songthaew

Instead we did it ourselves for considerably more fun (and yes, also a little more difficulty and frustration) at these costs:

  • Songthaew to bus station: 30 baht
  • Return bus trip to Lampang: 142 baht each (284 baht total)
  • Return songthaew trip to Wat Phra Tat Lampang Luang: 400 baht
  • Tuk tuk from bus station into town: 20 baht
  • Total: 734 baht


Lampang, or at least the bits we saw of it, was really quiet considering it was a Sunday. We came across so few songthaews that I was worried the temple would be closed by the time we arrived, and visiting Wat Phra Tat Lum Pah Pah Lan as the sum total of our day’s adventures would have been a bit depressing. We probably didn’t haggle hard enough when one eventually arrived, which explains the slightly high price, but at least with some of the usual maniacal Thai driving our songthaew driver unleashed we arrived at the wat in good time.

Naga temple guardian
Sexy beast

It’s an imposing complex, situated on an incline and surrounded by fortress walls and you enter by an elaborate flight of stairs flanked by lions and nagas.


Candle wax residue

Once inside there was a real feeling of reverence, with Thai pilgrims outnumbering gawking tourists about 9:1. One group intoned chants in front of a chedi containing a relic of the Buddha as other worshippers processed around it silently with hands clasped. We snuck around trying to be discreet and respectful.


Boy at bullethole shrine

Another small shrine commemorated a historic battle victory against the Burmese, apparently featuring the bullet hole in the stonework from the actual bullet which killed the Burmese commander in question. Um, okay.


Being a woman, I was unfortunately deemed unworthy to enter a small viharn at the back of the complex to experience one of the most interesting features of the wat, but according to Alec it was really cool. It was pitch dark inside with light only entering through a small hole in the wall, such that a detailed, panoramic camera obscura image of the entire temple was projected onto the back wall. Ladies could glimpse a scaled-down version of this in another viharn to the left of the main temple where a colour image of the chedi was projected onto a concrete slab next to the entrance, again, through a chink of light in the window.


Very lame Catholic mass pun there in the caption, sorry. I don’t remember coming across this method of collecting donations from worshippers in Singapore’s Buddhist temples, though of course it’s possible I just didn’t notice or haven’t been to the ones where it’s done.


Money shot

Very lame porn pun there in the caption, sorry. Can you tell it’s been a long week?


Chicken bling

This is where the temple’s chickens live. I think it’s nicer than most of the backpacker hostels I’ve stayed in.


The shrining

I found the gold-leaf monks in Wat Phra Singh quite touching, but I must say the life-size, super life-like monk figure encased in this shrine creeped me out a little.


I don’t have any experience with taking, Photoshopping or appreciating black and white photography, but tried some out anyway with the bodhi trees in the temple compound. I’m not sure if the results are decent or just meh, but I do quite like them and how they work as a pair. Comments/advice from more clued-in photographers very welcome.


Chiang Mai Weekend Market

The weekend night market in Chiang Mai’s Old City is lovely. Just to make things clear, this isn’t the permanent Night Market which I suppose every tourist in Chiang Mai visits at some point. That one has built-in stalls crammed along a nondescript main road, this one has ad hoc stalls sprawling along the wide thoroughfares of the Old City (pedestrianized when the market is on) and spilling into temple compounds, where many of the prayer halls remain open and people sit outside eating on the grass. There’s a really laid-back atmosphere to the whole place, with absolutely none of the heat or claustrophobia that make Chatuchak a little trying even for a shopping junkie like me.

Plus, prices are great. The same slippers I saw here for 99 baht (as in, the sign said 99 baht so the real price would have been even lower) here were apparently 250 baht when I asked about them a few days later in the Night Market. I made smiley good-humoured attempts to convince the guy to match that price, but he wouldn’t go lower than 180 baht, so I walked away. S$7 is a bit much for slippers which will spend most of their time getting slept on by our 5 driveway cats.

I must admit I was a little more absorbed in SHOPPINGGGG! than committing myself to doing much photography at the market, but here’s what I did get.

I took this from the street surrounded by stalls and shoppers, but only a few metres away all is peaceful.


The market stays open till about midnight, which I guess is a little late for some of its stakeholders.


We passed these guys on the way home, playing chess on the fringes of the market. I don’t know if they actually knew each other or were just bonding through shared shopping avoidance.


Chiang Mai: Day One

Perhaps there was turbulence during our flight to Chiang Mai, but given that it took off at six in the morning I slept like a baby the whole way. We landed about nine, checked blearily into Chiang Mai Thai House at ten, then promptly fell asleep till two. Not the most intrepid start to the holiday then, but hey, h-o-l-i-d-a-y.

Recharged at two, we sallied forth into the Old City (a five minute walk from our guesthouse) and headed for Wat Phra Singh, figuring that since it was at the other end we’d get to see lots on the way. People were setting up their stalls for the weekend market to be held later that evening – hence the photo in my earlier placeholder post.

Wat Phra Singh seems to have a fairly large population of young boyish monks relaxing picturesquely around its compound, which added to its already considerable aesthetic appeal.


Life-size monk statues covered in gold leaf sit in permanent meditation beside the main altar. Each is obviously modelled after a real person, presumably an elder monk who has passed away. Being more accustomed to the somewhat more monumental style of European church memorial statuary, I found the tender realism of these quite moving.


Here’s a view of the altar just to put the monk statues into context. There are about five but it was hard to capture all of them.


Candles in front of the chedi outside, which is in pretty good shape for something built in 1345.


Next to the chedi, each tree bears its own signboard with a characteristically Buddhist exhortation. We came across these in other wats during our trip, but Wat Phra Singh’s trees were the only bilingual ones.


This was just a nice moment I happened to glimpse between a young monk and his friend. The dogs you can just about see in the top right are only a few of the numerous dogs in the temple compound. At 5 pm (I think), temple gongs were sounded and in response the entire pack of dogs howled for about 30 seconds.


The walls of the viharn are covered with murals. I loved the light streaming through the sides of the door but assumed my camera wouldn’t be able to capture it, only to be proved wrong. Yay Canon Ixus.


Some detail of the murals on the walls. The woman in the middle with the cigar somehow made me think of Frida Kahlo, despite having two distinct brows.


More mural detail. I love the depiction of the waves.


Some detail of the door. While I was composing the photo the monks I photographed at the start of this post got up and started heading into the temple. Based on how damn slow I always am at sightseeing, they must have been chatting a long time.


We finally finished seeing Wat Phra Singh and walked around a little more in the roads around it. I love Chiang Mai’s profusion of wats, and how each wat we visited always felt like a distinct and active faith community. Kids were playing basketball next to this one. I don’t know its name or whether it has any historical significance, we just wandered round a corner and found it.


Aroon Rai looked like a good choice for dinner since it seems to have widespread guidebook and Internet forum acclaim for cheap authentic Northern Thai cuisine, but unfortunately we were rather disappointed with it. We ordered pork with ginger, chilli and tomato paste, which was supposed to be a Northern specialty but tasted a lot like a dish my Eurasian mum’s been cooking all her life. It was tasty, but not spectacular. Our second dish of stir-fried kale with crispy pork had no crispy pork whatsoever. Our third dish was so forgettable I don’t even know what it was any more. And, while I admit our taste buds have perhaps become too spice-dependent for their own good, all the dishes seemed quite bland – which is about the last thing you expect from the average Thai meal. I don’t know why this place is acclaimed, it was pretty much the sort of meal you can get from a decent economy rice stall in any Singaporean hawker centre. It was cheap and filled the belly, but nothing more than that.

After dinner we headed for the weekend night market, now in full swing. I’ll write about that in the next post since this one’s already rather long.

Chiang Mai: Placeholder

Yeah, as you might have guessed I haven’t quite got my act together yet for blogging about our trip to Chiang Mai and Chiang Dao. And with Russ arriving this Saturday and our, er, “happy” threesome trip to Siem Reap the Friday after that (heh, the boys are gonna have soooo much fun!), and the wedding planning hamsterwheel we’re constantly on, I’m afraid I can’t pretend I’m suddenly going to be the world’s best time-manager.

But in the meantime, here’s a display of bare flesh to make up for my dearth of content! Don’t say I never put it all out there for my readers.


Three things that caught my eye on the walk between our hotel and Siam Square on the one Bangkok day I did bother to stop for photos.

Components of a street stall. Some assembly required.


Check out what I think is the only anti-Singapore graffiti I’ve ever seen in my life. [Backstory]


You’re A Shopfront, Charlie Brown!


Hanoi: Day Three

[I suddenly realized that I really should try and finish one trip’s worth of travel blog entries (Vietnam) before going on the next (Kuching for my second RWMF, next Thursday). Of course, I still only have 5 days blogged out of last August’s 17 day trip to London, Norway and Germany but Vietnam makes more sense as far as the art of the possible is concerned.]

Ha Long Bay panorama

For this day and the next, we’re on a tour to Ha Long Bay with Handspan Tours. After an early start, I drowse happily in the minibus, waking up intermittently to enjoy the bucolic countryside views and to steal Alec’s book every time he falls asleep (because for some reason I didn’t feel like reading my own). Of course, I soon fall asleep clutching it, wake up to find he’s stolen it back, and the whole cycle begins again.

The jetty is packed with pleasure boats parked at least five deep, and according to no discernable order or plan. We board one that will take us out to our eventual boat, the Dragon’s Pearl. Manoeuvring the boat out of the “berth” through all the others involves the sort of comedy hijinks that you thought only existed in the days of vaudeville or The Simple Life: Interns. The boats crash into each other gently but frequently, with crew members often using pure muscle power to push the boats out of a clinch. Tiny boats dart fearlessly in and out of the chaos, hoping to score a quick fruit sale to idle passengers. Our boat is in great shape, which is a relief after all the bangers we passed on the way, including more than a few names that I recognise from the other tour companies’ websites I surfed while trying to decide which tour to book.

Arched karst formation

We check into our clean wood-panelled room and report for lunch, which introduces us to the only disappointment of the tour: the food. It’s the sort of utterly bland, only nominally Oriental stuff that I haven’t tasted since we stopped for takeaway while driving through the English Midlands several years ago and I ordered Singapore Fried Rice for kicks. I assume it’s intended to cater to Western tastebuds, but it does both the country and Western tastebuds a huge disservice by doing so. I distract myself from the growing suspicion that I’m eating corrugated cardboard by running out frequently onto the deck to take pictures.

After lunch we make our first stop, at the Sung Sot “Amazing Cave”. Which, to be fair, is pretty amazing.

Cave interior

It’s quite dramatically lighted and has smoothened paths for people to walk along, but even if this detracts from the sort of raw “naturalness” that some people may want from a cave, it really still is spectacular.

Cave interior (detail)

Alec remarked that this picture makes him think of a mushroom cloud. Note the rather small people on the right for an idea of the scale of the place.

Cave interior column
Floating village

On the way out of the bay, we pass our first floating village. The next stop is Titop Island, which I think is the highest island in Ha Long Bay. You can climb to the top for a view of the karsts, which is okay but still inferior to drifting among them. The climb is straightforward but sweaty. Sodden with sweat halfway up, I suddenly remember doing a similar climb to my castle hostel in Bacharach, Germany – except with a backpack, and in the rain, and alone – and from then on it’s easy peasy.

Floating village against the mountains

There’s a swimming stop after this, but my eczema’s bad as it always is during any holiday where I spend a protracted amount of time in outdoor heat, and I’m wary of immersing raw skin where I don’t know how clean the water is. Later on, dinner features more mediocre food. Although our dinner companions are perfectly amiable, Alec’s beginning to feel the effects of yesterday’s street food on his digestive system and is a little under the weather, which affects my mood. (I become a ridiculous miserable wreck when anyone I love is ill and uncomfortable.)

After dinner, we sit on the empty top deck of the boat, which is anchored in the middle of Ha Long Bay for the night. As far as the eye can see, there are only the shadowy karsts, other boats in the distance with their lights reflected in the still water, and a clear sky full of stars.

Hanoi: Day Two

After a lazy morning and a little errand running for the next day’s trip to Ha Long Bay, we go to buy tickets for the water puppet show. The girl in the box office stares impassively at us as we stand about two feet away from her dull plastic window, trying to decide which show time to buy for. Having reached a decision, I step forward and open my mouth to ask for the tickets only to have said window abruptly shut in my face. A sign indicates the box office closes between noon and 12.45, and I guess the girl’s a real stickler for punctuality. If I were an uptight person this behaviour would annoy me but hell, I’m on holiday. We’ll go explore Hoan Kiem Lake and come back in 45.

Behind the counter

Truth be told, Ngoc Son Temple and the red “Sunbeam” bridge that leads to it are better appreciated from a distance. They look very picturesque when enveloped in the mist over the water, but once you actually get closer the temple’s fairly standard issue (except for the huge preserved tortoise carcass, that is) and won’t hold your attention long unless you’ve never seen a temple before. At the entrance to the bridge, I photograph a souvenir stall through its back door, and like the slightly different perspective it gives from the storefronts beautifully laid out for us tourists.


Is our children learning?

The banks of Hoan Kiem Lake seem as well-maintained as any park in Singapore. We stroll past a small series of modern art sculptures, a long line of propaganda posters, and scattered instances of furtive hand-holding and UST (for those of you who weren’t geeky enough to be active in the online X-Files communities of the 90s, that stands for Unresolved Sexual Tension) among young Vietnamese couples who should perhaps have been in school instead.


Eye of the tiger.

My usual penchant for bizarre statuary is amply sustained by this delightful white tiger on an ornamental wall near the entrance to Ngoc Son Temple. I want whatever mascara he’s got. Alec wants his ‘tache.


Proletariat and palm trees.

While we’re on the topic of statues, check out some Soviet Realism in the tropics!


Inspired by the spirit of revolution, our stomachs remind us it’s lunch time. And thanks to wuyuetian, I know just the place. Eating here probably breaks a couple of the food rules in the travel guide – all the raw vegetables look like they’ve been rinsed in tap water – but if you have to get food poisoning somewhere, you might as well get it from a meal as magnificent as this. (My stomach was fine, Alec’s was…rather more affected. Thank God for growing up in Southeast Asia, I guess.) Although I wasn’t too keen on the big stuffed spring rolls, the bun cha (grilled pork patties with rice noodles, to which you add herbs by the handful and ladle over delicious gravy that’s about 2 parts MSG and 1 part stock) is probably the best street food I’ve ever eaten. Our total bill, for huge unfinishable servings of pork patties, spring rolls, noodles, herbs, a Coke and a San Miguel, is 65,000D (S$6.50/a little over 2 pounds) – less than the price of a solitary San Miguel in most bars in Singapore. Thanks again, wuyuetian! I wouldn’t have had a clue about this place without your tip!

The Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre show (photo at the top) is quite charming, although water puppetry doesn’t seem to focus as much on the subtleties of an individual puppet’s movement (please note I know nothing about puppetry and my only basis of comparison is what I saw at the start of Being John Malkovich) as on getting the puppets to do synchronised dances and formations together. There are also light-hearted skits about villagers chasing fish around by thwacking themselves into the water, villagers chasing cats around by thwacking themselves into the water, and villagers chasing each other around by thwacking themselves into the water. And, of course, they do the legend of Hoan Kiem Lake. All good fun.

Light burden

After the show we walk around the cathedral area and do a little shopping on Nha Tho. This is most definitely an expat zone, with Spanish restaurants and suchlike, and cool shops full of cool things that I can’t bring myself to afford. I buy a weird little buffalo lantern thingy at a poky little place at the end of the road where the prices are less scary. My family thinks it’s hilariously ugly.


Since we’ve had local street food for lunch, the natural contrast in a trip to Vietnam is fancy French food for dinner. The outside courtyard of Green Tangerine is beautiful, and so romantic that I almost forgive Alec for forgetting to bring our travel guide. Almost.

This is what we have for dinner, and yes, I’m such a sad person that I actually copied all of this from the menu:


  • Crab remoulade with orange zests on a layer of fresh asparagus, served with scallops marinated in orange flower essence separated by a sesame lace (Alec)
  • Scallops marinated in lavender flower presented on a bruschetta pancake (Me)


  • Beef cheek braised in red wine perfumed with raspberry vinegar, with small diced potatos and apples enhanced by dates (Alec)
  • Pork fillet rolled in blackcurrant and “ngo” herb served with stuffed bamboo shoots and small vegetables crusted with sesame (Me)


  • A sort of taster dish, with chocolate truffle, creme brulee, a grape stuffed with sorbet, kiwi paste in a pastry shell and probably something else we couldn’t identify (Alec)
  • Creme brulee in Calvados, served in an apple baked in red wine (Me)

Total bill: 53 USD. We leave a 100,000D tip because the service has been lovely, despite being fully aware that that alone is more than our entire lunch cost.

Perhaps you’re wondering why we don’t seem to have explored the Old Quarter much. We did, but it’s just so difficult to capture its incredible appeal in words and pictures. Hanoi feels like its constant influx of tourists have little effect on its real life and the Old Quarter epitomizes this.

Everything to everybody

Yes, souvenir shops and hotels and tourist eateries spring up everywhere, but Hang Dau is still thronged every night we walk through it with happy Vietnamese women, a street full of shoes reflected in their eyes, and their men patiently waiting on motorbikes parked four deep. Yes, I do often have to politely decline the “Salut! Photo?” offers of the ubiquitious girls carrying baskets of fruit at either end of their yoke, but for every one of those girls there’s a wizened old lady in a conical hat carrying anything from plasticware to prawns at the ends of her yoke, and we mean nothing to her.


On the same street where I decide against buying a conical hat because I think the price is too high and I’m not in the mood to bargain, other shops feel it’s still worth their while to continue in the trades they have spent their lives in. I sincerely hope they never let us change that.

Me Not Ready Love You Long Time Just Yet

An update on wonderful Vietnam is on the way, faster than a speeding bullet speeding motorcycle clapped-out but valiantly struggling made-in-China death trap of a moped with no side mirrors!

(Thanks for being so patient, everybody. But um, yeah, I still need a little more time.)

2006 Just Started And We’re Already Below Par

Some people begin a new year by making resolutions, beginning diets, planning exercise regimes, or at the very least directing their energies to something vaguely useful.

We played minigolf.

Those of you familiar with my penchant for dumb kitsch will have no difficulties understanding why LilliPutt – “Funtastic Singapore in 18 Holes” held so much joyful potential for me.

Indeed, one need not even extend one’s imagination far beyond this blog’s last kitschfest to see why. My friends, I present to you: “uniquely Singapore” minigolf!

Shifu is watching…

Alec’s golf pro is a pretty intense guy, but he’s really devoted to coaching from the ground up.


Fore2 jiao4

My coach was nice and chilled though. Very Zen. I realize I’m breaking 2 terrible taboos here, standing with my head higher than the Buddha and my feet pointing towards him, but I couldn’t make the shot any other way! (Note to non-Mandarin speakers: the caption to the photo contains a pun so ghastly you’ll be glad you don’t get it.)


Fear my pink dimpled wrath!

This poor demon got a little short-changed when fearsome demonic powers were being handed out.


Fear my fucking flat-cap!

This guy has a bit of a demented Marcel Marceau vibe going on, and is final conclusive proof that flat-caps are pure evil in origin.


The other 17 holes featured an endearing mishmash of Singaporeana. Tiny mechanized trishaws, MRT trains and cable cars transporting your golf ball between the stages of a hole. Miniature versions of the Esplanade, Merlion, Suntec fountain, Boat Quay, Botanic Gardens gazebo, and in a slightly obvious attempt at self-glorification, the Big Splash building which houses Lilliputt.

But not everything was devoted to tourist attractions of Singapore! Some holes were devoted to venues which cater to ordinary Singaporeans and common pastimes.

Here oso got Crazy Horse¹leh.

For example, the Turf Club.


Some day we’ll win a SEA games medal…

And, uh, the ski resort. Hmmm.


Oh, I nearly forgot. There was, of course, some competitive element in this whole exercise, as our blissful relationship of mutual respect and passionate devotion is not entirely devoid of bitter rivalry and petulant oneupmanship. If I were to say it didn’t matter at all to me who won or lost, as long as we had fun, I’d be lying.

Na beh.²

London 2005: V&A, Serpentine Gallery, Notting Hill

Day Six: Tuesday 9 August


V&A Museum architecture (detail)

In the V&A’s lovely John Madjewski courtyard, we start off lolling on a shady expanse of lawn, enjoying a delicious takeaway briyani lunch and the feel of grass between our toes. Russ rolls around on the ground taking photographs of me from various angles. He uses a balletic leg in the air to point in the direction he wants me to look, which does the trick of dissolving my usual self-conscious photo look with laughter.


V&A John Madjewski Courtyard

Kids are running in the fountain. (Click on the photo to see them, they’re rather small as kids tend to be.) As soon as we finish our lunch, we become the only adults in the fountain unaccompanied by children.


These two amuse me because of their reluctance to sit on the many available chairs. They leave little wet bumprints on the ground when they stand up to run back into the fountain.


The hugely endearing 70 Years of Penguin Design exhibition is the main reason for our visit, but while we’re there we also take a quick look at the RIBA Stirling prizewinners of the last decade. Apart from my beloved Gherkin, I also like Foster and Partners’ American Air Museum in Duxford, the winner for 1998.

From here it’s a nice walk to Hyde Park, where we eyeball this year’s huge flatpack armadillo

Summer Pavilion and visit Rirkrit Tiravanika’s Rirkritrospective in the Serpentine Gallery. (Methinks Mr Tiravanika and I share a similar sense of verbal humour.) Two of the installations here are mock-ups of the artist’s New York apartment, and gallery visitors are encouraged to make themselves at home. People are sitting chatting in the kitchen, lounging in front of the TV, scrawling on the clapboard floors and walls. Two selections:

Dear Rirkrit,

You need to stop living in these dumps. Find a nice girl & settle down, bring up some children, get a steady job in management.

Love, Dad.


I read the use-by date on something in the fridge; it expired in July.

Dinner at the Windsor Castle involves paying rather dearly for its considerable charm – £8.50 for my salad, £1.50 for a small glass of shitty mixed cola – but it’s the only pub I’ve ever been to in England which still has all its sections intact. It’s fun watching everyone else having to bend almost double to cross from one section to the next when you hardly have to do so yourself.

We get to Being Boiled at the Notting Hill Arts Club while entry is still free. Dave and Jeremy join us later on. I enjoy happy hour not because of the drink promotions (the £2 Troy beer from Turkey is pretty awful) but because they’re playing good electrohouse. Nothing special in London of course, but truly music to my Singapore-deadened ears.

Dahlia, tonight’s live act, does Peaches-stylie riotgrrrl electrocabaret while wearing lingerie, fishnets and stilettos. I think I would have enjoyed it more if I’d found her sexy but her gyrations mostly remind me of muscly calisthenics and I later reduce Russ to helpless giggles on the dancefloor with my very own Dahlia imitation, featuring a piercing gaze, a lingering, beckoning, finger, and then manic hip-jerking. It works especially well to Tainted Love, but falls apart horribly once I try it with Vitalic.

On the long tube ride back to Wimbledon I suddenly remember it was National Day in Singapore today. I had totally forgotten. I can’t help being struck by the contrast – how easily and tracelessly Singapore slips away once I am here, and how two years after leaving London for Singapore I still ache for it every day.