A week ago we had two pairs of visitors, one on their final day in Thailand after a month-long vacation and another on their first day in Thailand on the start of a multi-week vacation. While the two pairs had never met, I rented a van and driver, bundled them all in, and took them down on a Friday night to the floating market in Amphawa, a town about 90 minutes southwest of Bangkok.
I’ve been to Amphawa many times but on each visit I discover something new or, at least, a new way to approach it. As such, I feel like I’m refining this “tour”, if you will. Each subsequent guest gets a better experience. For example, I have decided that Fridays are a much better day to go than Saturday or Sunday because the market is much less crowded.
I’ve also decided that it is best to hire a boat and visit several of the temples along the river in the hour or so before sunset. This way you get few tourists but lots of interesting “golden” light. This temple, which has been abandoned to the forest, is at Bang Gung (literally, “Area of the Shrimp”) and while I’ve visited here on bicycle before, I didn’t realize it was an easy walk from the river. Add that to future itineraries.
Riding a long-tail boat down the Mae Khlong River just after sunset it a breathtaking experience. The sky is so beautiful and the water is so calm. Afterwards we explored the floating market, ate lots of tasty, fresh, and inexpensive seafood and other treats before heading back to Bangkok.
Even though Tawn and I had a chance to visit with them in Los Angeles just a few weeks ago, it was a pleasant coincidence that Gary and William had scheduled a trip to Bangkok for the end of June. We were able to see them several times during their visit, and they invited me to travel to Kanchanaburi Province with them to visit the Tiger Temple.
First stop was the town of Kanchanaburi itself, about two hours northwest of Bangkok. This town, located on Maenam Kwai (“River Kwai” – pronounced “kwae”), is the site of the bridge made famous in the 1957 David Lean film, Bridge Over the River Kwai. We made a quick stop at the very good Thai-Burma Railway Centre, the better of two museums in the city about the building of the bridge.
Next, after a delay of about 45 minutes, we jumped on a train pulled by a 40+ year old GE diesel engine for a trip across the bridge and about an hour towards the Burmese border.
Riding in a nearly antique (but still considered standard, third-class quality by the State Railways of Thailand) car, our interest quickly faded as the passing scenery blurred into a hazy green.
William, leaning out the window, takes a few shots of the countryside. Fear not, we were actually stopped at a small country station when he did this. Otherwise, he would have been whacked in the back of his head by overgrown bushes alongside the tracks.
A lone motorcyclist travels a country road as we pass a pair of houses.
Young rice grows a vibrant green in rich, volcanic soil.
Can you identify these crops? Our tour guide disappeared for most of the train ride, but I was eventually able to learn that these are cassava plants, from which tapioca starch is obtained.
After much too long on the train, we disembarked at a dusty whistle stop and boarded our van, which had been chasing after us. About twenty minutes later we arrived at the Tiger Temple. The temple itself started out as a forest monastery in the mid-1990s. Over time, the monks came to care for insured birds, an injured boar, and other animals they either encountered or were given to them. The large grounds of the monastery developed into something of a wildlife sanctuary.
In February 1999, the first tiger cub was brought to the temple. The cub had been orphaned by poachers and then had been sold to someone who was going to have it stuffed. The cub survived the botched procedure to euthanize it and was brought to the temple. Over the next few years, other orphaned cubs were brought to the temple and the head monk cared for them in following the principles of compassion for all living beings.
My last visit there was five years ago and the temple has developed quite a bit. It remains a very popular tourist destination and the visitors’ fees go to support projects to protect the tigers. The temple has also come in for some criticism from animal rights activists, which I won’t go into here other than to say that I did not witness any signs of ill treatment of the animals.
Okay, not a tiger, but a very large fire ant. I was impressed with the macro focus on my camera!
The tigers, much like all cats, were napping in the warm afternoon. There were about three or four staff members and volunteers for each cat and we were instructed about how to approach the cats and then the staff would take pictures.
There were also plenty of other animals roaming about the large temple grounds, including this very friendly deer named Ta Waan – Sweet Eyes – who knows our tour guide because he always brings a bag of dried corn with him to the temple.
After feeding her, Ta Waan became our new best friend, following us around the temple.
Many of the tiger cubs are handled by various monks. They play with them and keep them out of trouble. This one made a lunge for Ta Waan, who bounded away, and the monk literally had to grab the tiger by the tail to keep him from running after the deer.
Since my last visit, the temple has introduced several programs that allow more interactivity with the cats, all for an extra price. One of the programs was being able to feed and play with the cubs. Gary and William opted for this and ended up with some wonderful pictures and great memories. You’ll have to stay tuned to Gary’s site for those pictures.
Another program was being able to exercise the big cats. Visitors are escorted by staff members into the exercise enclosure (Daniel in the lion’s den?) and get to play with them much in the same way you play with your cat at home: by holding something at the end of a stick that they will want to pounce on. The enclosure has good vantage points from which you can see the big cats enjoying themselves.
As for the danger level, these are definitely wild cats and I observed that a lot of work is done by staff and volunteers to ensure that visitors don’t do anything that would startle the cats or cause their natural instincts to kick in, causing harm. I suppose that also keeping them fed (boiled chicken) and happy do a lot to minimize some of the risks.
While I was standing there filming from the wall (standing about where the man in the white shirt is taking a picture in the photo above), I suddenly sensed that there was something just over my right shoulder. Sure enough, the tiger cub (pictured with the monk several photos above) was walking along the top of the wall and had stopped because I was in his way.
This picture, one of three that turned out very nice, wasn’t taken with any zoom lens! I was about two feet away from his whiskers. Beautiful animal but a bit unnerving to be caught unawares.
I’ll leave you with this video compilation, about three minutes of footage of the tigers playing in the water.
All in all, I think Gary and William had a fantastic time and I’d include a visit to the Tiger Temple on the itinerary for other guests. It is certainly an experience you won’t have at home.
Let me go back into the details about our trip to Burriram province, with our friend Trish.
We went up to this province about five hours to the northeast of Khrungthep, to locate sources of silk for Trish’s new custom-made dress business. Many of Thailand’s provinces are known for their silk, but the Nakhon Ratchasima (aka Korat) and Buriram provinces are known for their high quality and simpler styles. Provinces in the north of the country have more decorative styles of weaving.
While there, we visited several silk shops and a factory, we had a brief visit with some of Tawn’s relatives, and we went to see some ancient Khmer ruins. Here are the details:
Silk, Silk Everywhere
After visiting a few different retail silk shops, Tawn was able to get hold of one of his cousins, who recommended a particular silk factory located in Pak Thong Chai (see map above) with whom she’s worked before. Tawn called the factory, which was not far away, and one of the employees met us at the silk shops to guide us there.
Located a kilometer back from the main road in a nondescript and unmarked set of warehouses, the factory was much different from what I had expected. I shot a lot of video footage and will find the time to edit it in the next week or so, but in the meantime let me share some photos with you.
The owner walked us through the entire production process and was happy to have me take photos.
Raw silk hanging in hoops before being dyed.
The silk is manually dyed, relying on the skill of the workers to match a particular shade.
A row of drying silk that has been dyed a brilliant turquoise blue.
Trish and Tawn watch the dying process.
Custom made screens used to print patterns on the silk, hence the term silk-screening.
Dyed threads are wound onto spools.
The looms, which are automated but require the constant attention of workers.
The factory manager explains the process to Trish and Tawn.
These heated rollers finish the silk, making it smoother to the touch.
Finally, sample batches of silk for Trish to sort through.
Here’s a video that runs down the process.
We spent three hours at the factory that first day, learning about silk, looking at different colors and patterns, and finally making clear what it was we were looking for.
By the time we left for Buriram, the sun was already setting.
Saturday morning we started with an early breakfast at a restaurant owned by one of Tawn’s cousins. A typical Thai restaurant, there were shelves and shelves filled with kitchy collectables, below. Trish had her first authentic Thai breakfast, various gap khao (“with rice”) dishes including some fried fish, a curried fish mousse and mixed vegetables.
Our tour guide, a friend of Tawn’s cousin, met us at the restaurant. She is a retired primary school English teacher, so spoke English well enough to comfortably make corny jokes.
Our destination was Phnom Rung Historical Park, located just 30 km shy of the Cambodian border south of the main city of Buriram. This Khmer style Hindu temple dates back to the 10th century and is one of the best-preserved examples of Khmer architecture in Thailand.
We stand at the far end of the promenade, a quarter-mile long processional walkway that connects the lower stairway with the main temple complex.
Standing in front of the main temple complex and the second naga bridge. You see two of the four pools of water that represent the four oceans and the raised platform represents the bridge between the human realm (between the four oceans) and the heavenly realm, where the temple is.
The amount of symbolism in the construction of the Hindu temples was amazing. This is the main tower, or prang. It is covered with depictions of gods, humans, hermits, snakes, dragons and all of manner of beings. Our tour guide spent about ninety minutes giving us the run-down on this temple and afterwards explained that she had exhausted maybe only ten percent of her knowledge about the temple.
To give you an example of the sort of knowledge she had to share, she explained that this detail (it shows an area about the width of two hands) showed two hermits reading copies of Playboy magazine. One of the hermits, she said, was obviously not wearing any underwear.
Can you see which one doesn’t have any underwear? (Answer at the end of the post.) This was the type of humor we enjoyed all morning.
The construction of the temple was amazing. It is made out of sandstone and instead of carving blocks then putting them into place, they instead stacked all the blocks (which were not always regular sizes) and then carved away to reveal the detail they wanted.
In this picture, you can where the blocks were carved to make the steps. The block in the center top of the picture has many different faces as it was carved to be part of two separate steps as well as the adjacent wall. This made the construction all the more difficult.
Detail of the principle prang. This temple was primarily devoted to Shiva, one of the supreme dieties of the Hindu religion. Shiva is depicted in the center of this panel. Remember that with the way the temple was constructed, this was just a solid stack of limestone blocks. The artisans had to chisel away to make all the ornamentation. Because of that, mistakes could not be undone as there was no practical way to remove a block and replace it. I think that makes the detail all the more amazing.
Like most historical sights, there is a lot to digest and after a few hours, a break is needed. Since we had only a limited time in the province that weekend, we wrapped things up and dropped our guide off in the main town of Buriram just after noon.
Back in Town
After a quick bite of bami moo daeng – egg noodles with barbeque pork – we stopped by a local coffee shop for a latte. So far we had consumed only Nescafe, which isn’t real coffee even though it seems to be the national coffee drink of Thailand.
We found a “real” coffee shop that had espresso machines, but when we asked for lattes the young lady said they couldn’t do lattes as they didn’t carry fresh milk. Strangely, though, they offered cappuccinos. Tawn inquired how they made cappuccino with no milk and she pulled out a pitcher of sweetened condensed milk.
Really wanting my afternoon latte (which my Italian cousin will no doubt shake her head at, as espresso drinks with milk are strictly for the mornings, right?), I asked whether we could comandeer her espresso machine. Like most Thai employees, she was a bit overwhelmed by the confrontation but didn’t say no.
Next door was a pharmacy that had a refrigerator of bottled drinks, including individual cartons of milk. I bought two, poured them into a glass measuring cup, and started frothing the milk while she pulled espresso from another machine.
Thankfully, I do have some training on this. Back in the days when I managed movie theatres, we had cafes that featured Starbucks equipment and coffee. As such, we had access to expert training and so I learned how to froth milk like nobody’s business. I’m all about the velvety foam.
Ten minutes later, we had a trio of nearly perfect lattes. Along the way, Tawn had kept imploring the young lady to pay attention so she could learn how to do this, but she didn’t seem to want anything to do with our milk steaming.
As we left, she was no doubt glad that we were out of her shop. We tipped her well though and I walked away with the cocky satisfaction of someone who has brought civilization to the natives. Ah, the espresso drinker’s burden.
We stopped at one final silk shop after lunch. While Tawn and Trish ooh’d and aah’d over the beautiful textiles, I was busy watching a pair of city maintenance workers install a new street light.
It was pretty amazing. They pulled up in a pickup truck, a pair of lights in the back. A bamboo ladder was leaned against the concrete electrical pole and a young man climbed up. He slid a mounting onto the pole, fastened it into place, and then his coworker climbed up the ladder and handed the light fixture to him.
It took a few minutes for him to slip it into place, strip the wires and push them into one of the passing power lines. Try as he might, though, the light wouldn’t illuminate.
Thankfully, they had a second lamp in the truck, so he unfastened the lamp and changed it out. We left before the second lamp was installed, so I wonder if he had any success. One thing that caught my attention, though, was just how little in the way of safety equipment they had. No helmet, no protective gear, and he wore only flip-flops on his feet.
Occupational safety and health administration? Nope.
We stopped by Tawn’s grandfather’s house. Tawn’s father is the ninth of twelve children and the old family compound is now owned by his oldest uncle, the fourth child.
After years of hearing Tawn tell stories about his childhood visits to stay with his grandparents, it was fascinating to finally see the place. Tawn’s uncle and several cousins graciously welcomed us and we sat around a table, eating mooncakes and drinking water and visiting.
The most fascinating thing on the wall: a picture taken at the funeral of Tawn’s grandmother. It was a panoramic portrait of the more than three hundred family members who gathered at her cremation. Tawn and one of his cousins went into the monkhood for a day to earn merit for their grandmother. Tawn’s the one on the left.
Tawn, who was maybe 13 at the time, doesn’t look too happy about his new haircut. This was the only time Tawn has been a novice in the Buddhist monkhood.
Speaking of teenagers, Tawn has a second cousin, Toy, a fifteen-year old who will be going to the US as an exchange student next August. We visited with him, giving him a chance to practice his English. Tawn suggested that we could coordinate a trip to the US while he is there so that he has the opportunity to visit other parts of the country besides the one where his host family is located. He has not been assigned a specific location yet.
In the evening, after a few hours of relaxing at the hotel, we met another of Tawn’s cousins, Mee, for dinner at his restaurant. Mee has visited us in Bangkok before and it was very nice to see him again. His restaurant serves Thai food with slightly modern twists and everything was delicious.
The “Aunty” in the restaurant’s sign refers to Mee’s mother, not to Mee!
Sunday was my birthday. We started the morning with a quick hotel breakfast and then stopped at another coffee shop (this one had milk) for lattes before hitting the road.
Next door to the coffee shop/bakery is a bookstore. Just inside the door of the coffee shop is a sign. If reads, “Full stomach already, but is your brain full? Books and journals, please go this direction.” Quite clever.
We stopped back by the silk factory for another two and a half hours. The owner had arranged for us to peruse a broad range of colors and we finally made some purchases. Unfortunately, after returning to Khrunthep, Trish discovered that some of the silks were not two-ply as we had been told, but only one-play. Tawn is working with the factory owner to fix that.
Our final stop on the way in was Chokchai Farms, Thailand’s largest cattle operation. There was a huge crowd as people went on farm tours, ate at the steak house, and bought ice cream. We decided to stop for a steak burger to celebrate my birthday.
The burgers were pretty tasty, although they had way too much mayonaise on them, which seems to be a Thai thing. Trish claims this was the first burger she has had in fifteen years. Glad we were able to knock her off the wagon.
Video of the experience.
Afterwards, we had some ice cream, bought some snacks, and I tried to milk a huge cow. Look at its expression!
We returned to Khrungthep a bit after sunset, pretty exhausted after our weekend up in the northeast.
Answer: The hermit on the left is blowing in the breeze.