Sunday, March 29, 2009

Mueang Sing

Mueang Sing (เมืองสิงห์) is one of the ten historical parks in Thailand, but even though it is not that far from Bangkok and close to the River Kwai bridge visitied by almost every tourist coming to Thailand, it seems a very quite place. The day we went there I did not see any other tourist, except a group of Thai pathfinders who were camping next to the river.

While some historians identify the site with Srichaiya Singhapura mentioned in a stone inscription praising the Khmer king Jayavarman VII, however the first historical reference to this site dates from the reign of King Rama I at the end of the 18th century. At that time Mueang Sing was a fortified town, located on one of the major routes invading Burmese troops used when invading Siam. It is located near the end of the valley of the Kwae Noi river, thus protecting the way from the Three Pagoda pass to Kanchanaburi. But as it was just a minor town, it was reduced to a subdistrict (Tambon) when the administrative system of Siam was modernized by Prince Damrong.

The site is a Khmer temple complex, contemporary with the world-famous Angkor Wat. The most impressive and best restored building is named monument 1, with the main temple building (prasat) in the middle surrounded by a gallery wall with an entrance (gopura) in each of the four cardinal direction.

Next to it is a second large monument, however only the large foundation is preserved. In the past it also had three towers and a gallery wall, but these haven't been reconstructed.

Not all of the sites within the complex are as impressive as the main one. So called monument 4 is just a few foundation stones visible on the ground. The brochure from the park does not say much about it, but it was probably a religious building as well as a few artifacts were found in it. I did not stop at monument 3, which according to the brochure is just a little bit more than the foundation of a religious site.

In Michael Freeman's Khmer Temples of Thailand and Laos the author gives this temple only one star out of three, while the similar Phimai historical park in Nakhon Ratchasima get the full three stars. One point the author criticizes is the fact that the main monument of Muaeng Sing was reconstructed with too much haste and thus probably does not show the original architecture. Nevertheless I also enjoyed the trip to both sites, Phimai has much more to see but if you're around Kanchanaburi then Mueang Sing is worth a visit as well.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Wat Phra Phutthabat, Saraburi

Wat Phra Phutthabat, the temple of the holy Buddha footprint in Saraburi, is one of the most important Buddhist temples of Thailand, but since it is located a bit far from Bangkok and without any further attractions nearby foreigners don't come there as much as Thai. However for a Thai this is a place which every good Buddhist should visit at least once in their life. The kings of Ayutthaya went there every year, even though at those times the travel was still much more arduous than today, where it's just 2 hours of driving by car from the capital.

During the reign of king Songtham at the beginning of the 17th century, Thai monks were sent to Sri Lanka to make merit at a Buddha footprint there. Soon thereafter in 1622, a hunter named Bun discovered the footprint near Saraburi, though actually it was only a puddle in a depression of the rock. The king visited the place, declared it an authentic footprint and ordered the construction of the temple.

The footprint is now located within the lavishly decorated Mondop dating from the end of the 18th century. It is 52 cm wide, 180 cm long and 27 cm deep, and always has coins and banknotes thrown into it by the pilgrims. The other very notable architectural feature of the temple is the stairway with the five-headed mythological snake Naga on each handrail.

The Wat Thai Temple Blog wrote about this temple before. For those who speak German fellow Wikipedia Hdamm has a travel report on his website, also Ben wrote a report on his blog on some of the traditions during the pilgrimage to this temple.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Suan Pakkad palace

Within Bangkok there are hardly any places which really could be given the label "unseen", but even though this one is listed in many guidebooks it gets far less visitors than the prime attraction of the city. When I went there in 2001, there were less than a handful of visitors.

I am talking about Suan Pakkard (สวนผักกาด), a former palace and residence of the Prince of Nakhon Sawan. It consists of a group of four traditional Thai houses connected with walkways, and each of the houses exhibits cultural highlights, the oldest one being Ban Chiang pottery. The most famous of the houses the lacquer pavillon, but sadly my photo of it was not good enough to be displayed here. I think I should revisit the place for some new photos, and I also cannot recall much of the exhibition anymore. Only a collection of khon masks stick to my memory. And I also still have the hendheld fan which was given to me at the entrance - as all the exhibits are in the open houses it can get quite hot.

In the second photo you can see the traditional house together with the Baiyoke Tower, the highest skyscraper of Thailand. I tried to capture the contrast of the two buildings, one centuries old and one so much modern. For another comparison, an historic photo of Thai women in front the the lacquer pavillon at the TEFL sphere also shows the surroundings have changed quite a bit since then - the hairstyle looks like the photo was taken in the 1960s.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Monkey school in Surat Thani

As I am often going to Surat Thani, I checked out most of the places mentioned in the guidebooks already. One of these places was the monkey school of Somporn Saekow, located in Kanchanadit district not far from the city of Surat Thani.

However when I went there in 2003, I sadly learned that Somporn passed away half year earlier, and a cousin had just started to take over the school then. But as she did not speak English, the daughter of Somporn did some of the explanations. Though it was of course still very interesting to see how the monkeys get taught, from what I read later the presentations of Somporn had even more charm. And after I even found an English book in Bangkok on him, and an obituary in an Australian newspaper I also wrote him a Wikipedia article.

But it was not just these presentations which made this school special, it was the whole teaching philosophy. Teaching monkeys to harvest coconuts is an old technique, but Somporn did not like the way the monkeys are forced to do their work. So he developed his unique style in which the monkeys learn by playing in very easy steps. First the learn to accept a coconut as a toy, then to turn it, then to turn one hanging a meter above the floor. Once they succeed with this, such a coconut is loosely fixed on a tree and they have to climb up to make it fall down. And then finally the are ready to do this to real coconuts just getting ripe on the tree.

The whole course takes about half year. As catching the monkeys - Pig-tailed macaques - is illegal, but holding them in captivity is not, Somporn only teached monkeys farmers send to him as students, and returned them after they finished their course.

As my visit was in 2003 and the school just recovered from the death of the founder, I don't know if this school is still open today. But there are in fact still lots of so-called travel guide website which advertise Somporns school as a local attraction without mentioning anything about the fact that Somporn is not running it anymore - and even in a guide book I checked in the bookstore yesterday it still names Somporn, even though it was published in 2007.

Update: The school is still operating, and now also has a website.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Wat Thep Sathit in Ang Sila

Wihan Thep Sathit Phra Kitti Chaloem (วิหารเทพสถิตพระกิติเฉลิม) or Nacha Sa Thai Chue Shrine (ศาลเจ้าหน่าจาซาไท้จื้อ) is a very impressive Chinese temple in the town Ang Sila, close to the city Chonburi, about halfway between Bangkok and Pattaya. It is thus an easy place for a day-trip from either location.

Sadly photography inside the building was not allowed, so I can only show pictures of the outside, but from the many decorations visible in these photos one can already get an impression of the similar details inside. On four storeys it has statues of many Chinese deities. Knowing almost nothing about the Chinese belief I could only be impressed by the artistic work in these statues.

From the website of the temple - sadly only in Thai - I could find the history of this temple. In March 1991 the teacher Somchai Choesiri (สมชาย เฉยศิริ) established a small shrine at this place on an area of 200 square wa (800 m²). The shrine became very popular to the local population as well as businessmen, so on July 18 1995 Somchai Choesiri could lay the foundation stone for the new building, in order to finish it for the celebration of the 72th birthday of HM the King in 1999. On January 11 1998 the Supreme Patriarch presided over a ceremony of casting 7 Buddha images and bestowed the name Wihan Thep Sathit Phra Kitti Chaloem to the temple. The whole site now covers 13 rai (2 ha).

Some more photos can be seen in a Thai blog post by MeiJJ.